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Low-income students nearing majority in U.S. public schools

Some 48 percent of students were considered low income in 2010 and 2011, with highest rate—53 percent—occurring in the South

Nearly half of all students in public schools are now considered low income and therefore eligible for free or reduced lunch. And in 17 states, those students are already the majority, says a new report by the Southern Education Foundation that looks at data from 2010 and 2011.

Some 48 percent of students were considered low income, with the highest rate—53 percent—occurring in the South, where such students are the majority in 13 states, the Southern Education Foundation study says.

“Within the next few years, it is likely that low-income students will become a majority of all public school children in the United States,” the study says. “With huge, stubbornly unchanging gaps in learning, schools in the South and across the nation face the real danger of becoming entrenched, inadequately funded educational systems that enlarge the division in America between haves and have-nots and endanger the entire nation’s prospects.”

Moving low-income students to private schools will not solve the problem, study says. The achievement gaps between more affluent students and low-income students are as wide—or wider—in private schools as they are in public schools, the study says.

The states outside the South where low-income students are the majority are California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon. Low-income students also are the majority in all city schools across the nation, the study says.

In all regions except the Northeast, spending per pupil has not grown as sharply over the last decade as has the percentage of low-income students.

Here are the states with the five highest and lowest rates of low-income students:


  1. Mississippi
  2. New Mexico
  3. Louisiana
  4. Oklahoma
  5. Arkansas


  1. New Hampshire
  2. North Dakota
  3. New Jersey
  4. Massachusetts
  5. Connecticut