Nationwide, about three-fourths of both African-American and Latino students attend majority-low income schools. In the Chicago Public Schools system, 85 percent of students are either black or Latino.Eric Y. Exit/AP

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal

CHICAGO—In 2014, America’s education system marked an important milestone. For the first time ever, children of color became a majority among K-12 public school students nationwide.

Today schools are crossing a second, more troubling, barrier. The latest figures show that 51 percent of public school students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income under federal guidelines. This deepening concentration of economic need complicates the intertwined challenges of equipping America’s increasingly diverse young people with the education they need to reach the middle-class and developing the skilled workers the U.S. needs to maintain its international competitiveness. Without progress in addressing the hardening isolation of low-income families, school reform alone is unlikely to produce the educational results America needs.

Two converging trends are driving the growth of low-income schools. One is the overall trajectory of poverty. When Bill Clinton left office after 2000, the poverty rate for children under 18 stood just over 16 percent. That rose to 19 percent under George W. Bush and peaked at 22 percent under President Obama in 2010. The number has since declined only slightly to 21 percent; it remains about one-third for both African-Americans and Latinos.

The second trend is the growing isolation of poor people. In an important paper this fall, Century Foundation scholar Richard Kahlenberg noted that both rich and poor families are more separated from families in other income brackets today than in 1970. Figures compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count project show that over the past decade, the share of kids living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (defined as places where at least 30 percent of the residents are poor) has increased in most major cities—for example, from 25 to 34 percent in Los Angeles, 29 to 36 percent in Chicago, and 28 to 38 percent in Houston.

Because most students attend neighborhood schools, these intersecting trends have swelled the portion of kids in schools that also experience concentrated economic need. In 1999, only 28 percent of public school students attended schools where most of their classmates qualified as poor or low-income, meaning their families earned less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $45,000 for a family of four. (Schools track these figures to determine which students are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches.) The share of students attending majority low-income schools has rocketed to almost 51 percent, roughly 25 million kids in all, in the most recent federal figures, which covers the 2012-13 school year.

For students of color, the figures are even higher. Nationwide, about three-fourths of both African-American and Latino students attend majority-low income schools. By contrast, only about one-third of whites attend such economically strained schools.

In Chicago, in a school system where 85 percent of students are either black or Latino, the concentration of economic need is overwhelming. In 77 of the city’s roughly 680 public schools, at least 99 percent of the students qualify as poor or low-income. The share tops 90 percent in another 388 schools. In only 50 schools do less than half of students qualify as low-income.

“You're a fourth-grade teacher and coming into that door is 30 students from poverty, broken homes, crime and you are supposed to just, on your own, turn that around,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told me at a Next America forum I moderated here this week. “That’s impossible.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's Closing Remarks at 11/10 Next America Event in Chicago

Innovative and tenacious educators can make progress despite these trends. Chicago has developed a creative program of early intervention that has dramatically increased high school graduation rates from around 55 percent in 2009 to 70 percent now, with both African-American and Latino students demonstrating significant gains. Since 2003, the share of the city’s 4th graders who score as “proficient” on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests has tripled in math and more than doubled in reading (though in each case to only around 30 percent). At the forum Gregory Jones, principal of Chicago’s Kenwood Academy High School, a school where two-thirds of students are low-income, noted that just over half of their graduates now finish with some college credit.

Likewise, across all large cities, African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students have posted gains in reading and math since 2003. But the larger trend is the durability of income and racial disparities. The latest NAEP results for large cities found that only about one-fifth of students who qualified as low-income reached the (highest) proficient level in 4th grade reading or math, compared to just over half of more affluent classmates in reading and nearly three-fifths in math.

It’s fair to demand that schools rethink and reform to ensure that the interests of children take precedence over the priorities of the adults who run the system. But it’s unrealistic to ask schools to equalize opportunity alone, without more aggressive efforts to revitalize poor neighborhoods and to help more families relocate to more stable communities. Despite heroic exceptions, any national strategy that hopes to improve schools without improving neighborhoods simply won’t add up.

This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.

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