With more U.S. students living in poverty, education system faces strain

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    A newly released report by the Southern Education Foundation says a majority of all public school students across the United States come from low-income families. Experts say that could have important implications for the nation.

    For more about that, we're joined now from Washington by Lyndsey Layton. She covered the story for The Washington Post.

    So, the numbers have been getting worse over time, right? I mean, 10 years ago, it was only four states that had more than half their populations, the schoolchildren populations qualify for free or reduced lunches. Now it's 21 states.

  • LYNDSEY LAYTON, The Washington Post:

    That's right, Hari.

    We have seen a really rapid acceleration in this group of kids. And, of course, you know, people point to the 2008 recession as something that really made these numbers explode. B

    ut we have seen continued acceleration. It hasn't stabilized. It's getting worse.

    And now we're at 51 percent, so a majority of public school kids qualify for free food.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, what are some of the other strains on the system? In your story, I remember seeing that, basically, teachers are starting to act more than just teachers. They're social workers. They're psychologists.

  • LYNDSEY LAYTON:

    Well, if you talk to any teacher in a high-poverty school, they will tell you that they spend a huge amount of their time just making sure the kids are OK.

    I mean, these kids don't come into school wondering, am I going to take a test today? They come into school wondering, am I going to be OK?

    I talked with one kindergarten teacher, a veteran teacher from New Mexico. She teaches in downtown Albuquerque. And she told me that the first hour of her morning, she does an inventory to check her kids, have they eaten, are they clean?

    She keeps a drawer full of socks, shoes, clean underwear, toothbrushes for them just to take care of their immediate needs.

    She can't even focus on the academics.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What are some of the impacts or the potential impacts for education policy? I mean, right now, there's a national conversation going about testing and whether to reauthorize No Child Left Behind or the Common Core, et cetera, et cetera.

    But how can we really focus on tests if what you're saying and what this teacher is saying is, is that we really have a deeper underlying problem, that kids aren't going to be thinking about tests when they're thinking about whether they're hungry?

  • LYNDSEY LAYTON:

    Well, a lot of advocates for kids and a lot of Democrats and progressives want to see more spending to create wrap-around services around these kids, that the schools not only need help with the academics, with technology and curriculum and teacher training, but they also need to provide social services for these children.

    That's the argument that a lot of progressives are making. Right now, in town here, the Congress is about to debate the reauthorization of the main federal education law.

    And Republicans think that perhaps we're just not spending our money efficiently and that if states had more authority and more power in their spending, that the money would go to the greatest needs and that we need to streamline spending and give more authority to states.

    So, there's a real debate going on about what to do about this problem.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are there patterns that you see here emerging? When you look at the data around the country, are certain parts hit worse than others?

  • LYNDSEY LAYTON:

    Well, all you need to do is glance at the map which is — it's available at the Southern Education Foundation Web site and also at The Washington Post.

    You just take a look at that map, and you can see the red areas, where you have got the high concentration of poor kids. Obviously, it's the South and it's the West. So, those are border states with a lot of immigration. That's obvious.

    But then you also see in other parts of the country where you don't expect that — Vermont, for instance. One out of every three kids in Vermont has — needs free lunches and breakfast.

    So, the need is growing. It's all over the country, and beyond the obvious issues in the border states. You can find it all over the place.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Lyndsey Layton from The Washington Post joining us from Washington tonight, thanks so much.

  • LYNDSEY LAYTON:

    Thanks, Hari.

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