The reality of educating all Southern children

Educating children in the Deep South has never been as simple as getting them in the classroom and teaching them. There is and has always been a whole lot of real life going on outside of the schoolhouse.

Long ago, the realities of farming dictated the school year’s start and end; in Southern states, white children typically started school in September and black children started whenever the harvests were done.  Economies historically based on manual labor – agriculture, manufacturing, and mining – did not yield an urgency about high-quality public schools.

More recently, after urbanization and school consolidation, new problems had to be addressed; for example, bussing children to school no longer allowed them to go home for lunch, which necessitated school nutrition programs. (If you aren’t old enough to remember those days, then you still may remember the scene early in To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout and Jem take Walter Cunningham home with them for lunch.)

Today, that majority-farming culture is long gone – read Jack Temple Kirby’s Rural Worlds Lost for more details – and new social realities dictate school policy. The first one, rampant poverty, both urban and rural, can’t be ignored. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Second, we are trying to educate children for a new world order based on technologies that ramp up production and centralize administrative processes, which have created a need for a new kind of worker who is at least somewhat sophisticated. Modern computerized workplace machines are not as simple to run as a plow strapped to a mule, and the people who designed the system in a workplace may be a thousand miles away.

Still, the lack of urgency about educating all children in the Deep South remains prevalent, but the Deep South’s historical willingness to let schools flounder is no longer feasible. Job-seekers now need a familiarity with technology that underfunded schools can’t provide; a few tattered textbooks shared among classmates can’t teach the skills needed for a 21st century information-systems jobs. Historically short-sighted decision-making has put us in yet another problematic position . . . especially since the Great Recession of recent years.

On October 16, the Washington Post published an article about a Southern Education Foundation study showing that, in the 2010 – 2011 school year, children living in poverty comprised the majority of students in public schools over the entire Southeast:

Children from those low-income families dominated classrooms in 13 states in the South and the four Western states with the largest populations in 2011, researchers found. A decade earlier, just four states reported poor children as a majority of the student population in their public schools.

Here is a fact that the culture of the Deep South must adapt to: we must address systemic poverty in order to educate a workforce that can fill the jobs being created by the recruitment of absentee employers, like factories and their suppliers run by European and Asian corporations. These jobs can only become a stable economic underpinning of the modern South if the workers are capable of making the jobs stable. Students living in poverty and attending underfunded schools are less likely to accomplish that feat.

Within the SEF study referenced in the Washington Post article, immediately, on the report’s cover, no Southerner can ignore the band of dark red that covers the entire region. Across all of those dark red states more than 50% of the children in public schools are “low income,” meaning that they qualify for the federal free-or-reduced lunch program. The Deep Southern states comprise five of the top eleven states listed, with Mississippi leading the way at 71% and Alabama in 11th place with 55%.

If we note the dark red states on the SEF’s map, it is impossible to ignore the remarkable similarity to the list of states comprising the old Confederacy. Since the demise of legalized racial segregation, we’ve re-segregated ourselves— into haves and have-nots.

But this trend is not only Southern. Take a look at page 10 of the report, showing the gap between the reading scores of “higher income” students and “low income” students; the improvements are almost identical, but the gap never diminishes— and that’s nationwide. Then, follow that up by reading this, from the report:

Long-term trends strongly suggest that the nation has not adjusted its support for public schools to reflect the educational challenges that these developments bring. Since 2001, the number of low income students in public schools has grown roughly by one-third (32 percent) across the states. These are the students who need the most assistance. They generally are more likely to score lowest on school tests, fall behind in school, fail to graduate, and never receive a college degree. During this same period (2001-2011), the nation’s per pupil expenditure (adjusted for inflation) in public schools increased by only 14 percent — less than half the rate of growth in the numbers of low income students. The growth in the number of low income students far outstripped the growth in per pupil spending in public schools during the last decade in every region of the country, except the Northeast.

Over a ten year period, the number of students needing greater assistance has increased by one-third and the funding to meet those needs has increased by one-seventh. That’s also national.

These findings are backed up by a study published in September 2013 by the center on Budget and Policy Priorities; the study’s webpage bears the blunt title “Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession.”  The study covers six fiscal years from 2008 to 2013. Alabama, where I live, is second highest on the list, having cut per-pupil expenditures by 20.1% in those six years. (Only Oklahoma was more severe at 22.8%.) As for other Deep Southern states, South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi are also in the top-ten for most severe cuts. (Louisiana is way down the list with only a 4.1% cut, Florida is right below them with a 3.9% cut, and nearby Tennessee has actually increased per-pupil expenditures by 1.3%.)

The simple fact is: people who have less need more. And in the Deep South, education funding isn’t working out that way. Politicians and education administrators can re-design the standards or the curricula, provide professional development, or adopt new “accountability” measures – all of which can be positive changes – but to affect school performance in a significant way, our whole region must work together to reduce poverty outside the classroom and increase funding inside the classroom. We’re not living in a time when a person can do without “book learning,” like the bygone days when parents taught their children the DIY skills to live off the land. Back then, prior to mid-century modernization, that could suffice. Now, it can’t.

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