Is the south reaching a poverty ‘tipping point’?

Amid discussions about closing the achievement gap and securing stable, high-quality teaching staffs for high-poverty schools comes the news from the Southern Education Foundation that, for the first time in 40 years, more than half of public school students in the South are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

A story in the Christian Science Monitor includes the grim statistic that between 2000 and 2006, the number of “old South” states with 50 percent or more students eligible for the federal lunch subsidy program has increased from three to 11 (out of 13).

The causes are no surprise to those who live in the South, where the most important “export” has become factory jobs in textiles, furniture and other manufacturing. The “flat world” is flattening the southern economy, and rising unemployment and under-employment rates often mean hard times for families with school-aged children. The percentages are also affected by a shift to private school education among the South’s more affluent parents, who are more likely to make the decision to abandon public schools when poverty levels rise.

In the Monitor story, a mix of local and national observers lament the demographic development, with some predicting the end of a 40-year era of gradual public school improvement in what was, not long ago, referred to as the “New South.”

“Something has happened in the nation from 1990 to 2006, where our economic base has gotten more bottom heavy,” said Joan Lord, vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which released a study last week linking the rising poverty rates to a need for larger investments in pre-kindergarten programs. (Running counter to the claims of some observers, SREB also reported in September that the performance of students in 16 southeastern states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continues to improve — suggesting, perhaps, that at least some schools in the South are becoming more adept at educating children of poverty.)

Several experts related the rising poverty rate to another phenomenon — school resegregation — pointing to growing enrollments at church-supported schools and “rebel yell” academies that first proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s during court-ordered desegregation. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that public schools are really for the black kids,” said South Carolina political scientist Neal Thigpen.

William Taylor, chairman of the national Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, warned that the dream of racial equity through rising levels of education may be at stake. “If we’re going to figure out how to get out of (this), we have to figure out ways to change the dynamics.”