Prosperity Watch Issue 30, No. 5: Increase in low-income public school students creates challenges for NC's future economic health

As North Carolina continues to recover from the Great Recession, attracting more good-paying jobs to the state will require a skilled and educated workforce. An increasing number of jobs are expected to require some level of postsecondary training and meeting this workforce demand means that a growing number of the state’s public school students must exit the state’s education pipeline prepared to compete in a 21st century economy. And nowhere is this more important than among North Carolina’s neediest public school students.

For the first time in modern history, the majority of students in public schools in the South are from low-income families. For North Carolina, 56 percent of all students in public schools were eligible for free or reduced school lunch during the 2011-12 school year – the income threshold for a family of four is $30,615 to qualify for free lunch for the current school year. A closer look at participation in North Carolina’s subsidized school lunch program reveals that the state’s neediest students are not confined to any particular geographic region within the state. Instead, in nearly three out of every four public schools that serve grades Pre-K thorough 8, the majority of students came from low-income families during the 2011-12 school year. In fact, the majority of students in more than half of public high schools were from low-income families. The pervasiveness and high concentration of low-income students in public schools has increased significantly since the 2006-07 school year.


Many students within this new low-income majority require extra learning supports, as they lag their peers in core learning areas such as reading, math, and English. As a result, meeting the educational needs of these students typically require additional resources, such as extended instructional learning time in math and reading. Targeted spending in areas proven to have the greatest impact—teacher development and smaller classes, for example—help reduce the achievement gap between at-risk students and their peers. In North Carolina, when the state increased funding for the most academically disadvantaged school districts through the Disadvantaged Student Supplement Fund (DSSF) beginning with the 2004-05 school year, middle and high school students in DSSF districts at the greatest risk of failing did better academically than their peers in other districts in the state.

A skilled workforce that can compete for good-paying jobs is a necessity if North Carolina is to become a more competitive state in a 21st century economy. Success or failure in ensuring that all North Carolina students receive a quality education will ultimately determine the state’s economic prospects. Ensuring that public schools have the resources and support needed to meet this challenge should be a state-level priority. The FY2014 budget signed by Governor McCrory cuts funding in many of the areas found to help boost student achievement – classroom teachers, teacher assistants, instructional support, and teacher pay supplements, among other areas. These funding cuts have meant fewer classroom teachers, teacher assistants, instructional support, and instructional supplies, among other areas. North Carolina has taken a reverse course away from what works and this makes the challenge at hand difficult to meet.

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