This month, the Southern Education Foundation released one of the most troubling and important reports on education in this country in some time. The report – A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation—paints a stark picture of public education: the majority of public school students in the United States will soon be low income. Here are some of the key findings from the report:
- A majority of public school children in 17 states, one-third of the 50 states across the nation, were low income students – eligible for free or reduced lunches – in the school year that ended in 2011. (p. 1)
- The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools. Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011. (p. 4)
- In 38 of the 50 states, no less than half of all children attending public schools in cities – any urban place with more than 100,000 in population – were low income.
- America’s rural and suburban schools had lower rates of low income students. Forty-four percent of rural students and 40 percent of suburban students were eligible for free and reduced lunch in 2011.(p. 4)
As this data suggests—and what many social and education policy observers have been warning us about for some time—is that we are moving undeniably and unabated towards a “Two Americas” education model. While the large majority of low income families attend urban, under-performing, and underfunded public schools, the much smaller number of middle to upper class families attend private or public schools in wealthier districts. In this model, we also see other concerning, parallel trends:
- Persistent learning gaps between low income students and higher income students
- Public school expenditures not keeping pace with rate of growth in percentage of low-come students in urban areas, especially in the south and western regions of the country.
If left unchanged, this education model will reinforce and expand both income inequality and opportunity gaps among American families.
Short of significant economic turnaround and workforce development that increases both jobs and wages for more Americans, and large scale urban planning that reverses concentrations of low income families in inner-city neighborhoods, we are left to focus on one key strategic priority that is within the scope of cities to influence: the number of quality schools that serve low income students. Increasing the number of quality schools (or ‘quality seats’) in cities should be the central priority of city and education policymakers – regardless of whether these schools are traditional public, charter, private or parochial schools.
One key strategic priority that is within the scope of cities to influence: the number of quality schools that serve low income students.
Citywide efforts to improve the number of quality schools for all students will require several key elements. These include:
- Committed, unified, and unwavering focus from leaders—mayors, superintendents, city and school counselors, teachers unions, and business and community leaders—on the goal of increased school quality/seats. This includes supporting non-ideological education improvement plans that allow for several paths towards quality, such as expansion of effective public school, charter school, and private/parochial school models, and teacher evaluation systems accompanied by equal investment in teacher professional development resources.
- Mobilized and informed families that demand quality across all city schools and access to these schools through universal enrollment systems.
- A shared, objective metric of quality across all school sectors, civic leaders and families that identifies key indicators (curriculum standards, student assessments, school climate, family engagement, graduation rates, teacher performance measures, college completion, etc.) and benchmarks for these indicators. Ultimately, each school should pass this test: we as city and school leaders would send our children to this school.
- Development and retention of great school-level leaders. Quality starts with strong leadership – effective principals support and help retain effective teachers. However, there are too few exceptional and resilient leaders in city schools. Forty percent of principals leave within three years and 60 percent within five years.
- Public –private funding partnerships to support cities to:
- Effectively plan and execute the above elements
- Attract quality school models and leaders
- Provide supplemental funds to any and all schools that enroll special education and ELL students
- Assist with building and facility renovations
- Measure and share progress with families and to hold civic and school leaders accountable.
Perhaps the greatest element, however, is urgency. If city and school leaders do not act quickly to increase the number of quality schools/seats, the “Two Americas” model will extend well beyond schools, and increasingly to every aspect of the American experience.
Jake Murray is the Senior Director at Aspire Institute. Prior to joining Aspire, he served for four years as a child and youth planner for the City of Cambridge, overseeing strategic planning, quality improvement, and program development for early education, out-of-school-time, and youth development services.