For the first time in more than 40 years, the majority of public school students in the South come from families that live below the poverty line, according to a study recently released by the Southern Education Foundation.
Mississippi tops the list with 71 percent of its public school students receiving free or reduced-cost lunches, which is the the criteria used to determine “poverty.” Alabama came in ninth with 55 percent of its public school students in that category.
Four decades ago, this was not the case. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the white flight to private schools began. Students who could not afford private tuition were relegated to public schools.
This is not to suggest that public schools do not offer students a quality education. Most do. The point is that where public schools once were the foundation on which a democratic society was built, the place where students of all classes found themselves on something that resembled equal footing, public schools today are less able to fulfill that necessary function.
Race, of course, also is a factor. By essentially segregating the children of poor families into public schools, racial segregation also exists because the less-affluent students often are minority students across the South, if not much of the nation.
The correlation between racial and economic segregation in the South is clear.
Dallas County, in the heart of the Black Belt, had a child poverty rate of 56.5 percent in 2010. In neighboring Perry County, the rate was 54.3 percent. Most of those children are black and most go to the public schools that few middle-class whites attend.
The causes of this interplay between poverty, race and public education are many and complex — single-mother families, high unemployment, poorly educated parents, the list is a long one. In most cases, these are things that schools alone cannot correct. However, by taking out of those schools students whose circumstances offer examples of what someone can accomplish if they follow the rules, get an education and work hard, it is less likely that poor students will see a brighter future for themselves in someone else.
The controversial Alabama Accountability Act claimed to offer students a way to get out of “failing” schools, a claim as yet unproven except in anecdotal cases. What it might actually accomplish is to remove even more middle-class students from public schools and the economic segregation of Alabama’s schools will become even greater.
That will not serve the state well in the long run.