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Half Our Public School Students Are Officially Poor

U.S. Department of Education statistics reveal that the number of homeless children enrolled in public schools rose 10% in the 2011-12 academic year from the year before, bringing the number to a record high of more than 1.1 million. This is a 72% increase since the 2006-07 school year -- just before the Great Recession.

In particular, 43 states have experienced consecutive annual increases in youth homelessness since the onset of the recession, with 10 states reporting increases of 20% or more.

Worse yet, these statistics are probably an underestimate of the nation's homeless children; they don't consider infant and toddlers, or children not identified as homeless by school officials. Additionally, some students may not be included in the Education Department statistics because although they are eligible for aid for the homeless through their schools, their families are ineligible through the US. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In addition to the recession, other contributing factors to the rise of low-income and homeless students likely include parental unemployment or underemployment and stagnant wages coupled with increases in living expenses and inflation, as well as immigration and a higher birthrates among low-income families.

"The [economic] recovery has bypassed the poorest families and youth in our country," Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, told Youth Today. "A lot of people think, well, the recession's over and things are getting better, but that's not actually what we're seeing in public schools."

The nation spends about $500 billion annually on K-12 education, with all three levels of government -- federal, state and municipal -- contributing. With the federal government footing about 10% of the bill, though, the contributions of state and local governments can make a big difference. (For instance, New York contributes about $19,076 per student, while Utah contributes only $6,212.)

In every region but the Northeast, the rise in low-income students has outpaced spending on students. Since public schools are typically subsidized on the local level by property taxes, poorer districts suffer from scarcer resources to provide for their students. At the same time, low-income and homeless students who are not eating or sleeping well because of their circumstances will have trouble focusing in school and learning, which in turn can have long-term effects on their educational success.

"We have to do something different by the way we educate, but we do it by understanding who are the students and what are the needs," Suitts told The Washington Post.

Unfortunately, if this issue is not addressed aggressively, the trends suggest that low-income students will make up the overall majority of public school enrollees in the country in the next few years.

"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," the SEF study says.
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