Report: Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama among states with greatest percentage of low-income students

A student at Chattanooga Valley Elementary fills his plate in the school lunchline.

For the first time, more than half of U.S. public school students -- 51 percent -- are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches -- which means most of them are low-income -- says a report issued this month by the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation.

The Chattanooga area and the rest of the South passed that benchmark years ago. A majority of Southern students have been eligible for free and reduced lunch -- a common measure of poverty -- since 2007, the foundation says. That number grew to 57 percent in 2013, the year on which the report is based. In Hamilton County, almost 59 percent of students got free or reduced-price lunches in 2014.

photo A student at Chattanooga Valley Elementary fills his plate in the school lunchline.

That's 39 percent higher than it was in 2000, but it's on the lower end of the spectrum among Chattanooga-area counties, where rates in 2014 topped 80 percent in Tennessee's Bledsoe County and Chattooga County in Georgia.

Having a majority of low-income students is a potentially "disastrous" trend, the foundation says, since they tend not to do as well in school, which can put them -- and the entire nation -- at a loss in a global economy.

"If we now have a majority of students in our public schools who are performing at lower levels, then we are headed toward having an adult [work force] in 10, 12 years not prepared for the higher-paying jobs," said Steven Suitts, a foundation senior fellow who wrote the report.

But the milestone wasn't so worrisome to a conservative commentator, because the federal government has expanded its lunch program to include families earning 185 percent of the poverty level for reduced lunches -- $44,123 for a family of four this school year.

"You're talking about people making more than 40 grand a year," said Chuck DeVore, vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group whose mission is to promote "personal responsibility and free enterprise."

Also, a growing number schools offer free lunches to all students -- not just those who meet the income requirements -- to reduce paperwork and remove any stigma involved. For example, the Hamilton County Department of Education this year began to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students in 47 of its 76 schools.

"It's not a proxy for poverty," said DeVore, who served as a Republican in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010.

But others, including Ken Chilton, the former head of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies in Chattanooga, see the numbers as troubling.

Like Suitts, Chilton said such numbers signal "huge implications for U.S. economic competitiveness in the future."

South, West lead with low incomes

Southern and Western states have the highest percentages of low-income students, according to the report, which based its findings on 2013 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

By the numbers

States with greatest percentage of students getting free and reduced-price lunches: * Mississippi: 71% * New Mexico: 68% * Louisiana: 65% * Arkansas, Oklahoma: 61% * Georgia, Texas: 60% * Florida, Utah: 59% * Tennessee, Alabama, South Carolina: 58% States with fewest percentage of students getting free and reduced-price lunches: * New Hampshire: 27% * North Dakota: 30% * Connecticut, Vermont: 36% * Massachusetts, New Jersey: 37% * Minnesota, Wyoming: 38% * Ohio, Virginia: 39% * Alaska, Iowa, Pennsylvania, South Dakota: 40% Source: Southern Education FoundationLocal percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches: TENNESSEE* Hamilton County: 58.6% * Bradley County: 55.2% * Marion County: 72.6% * Sequatchie County: 68.6% * Bledsoe County: 80.9% * Rhea County: 69.8% * Meigs County: 65.2% * McMinn County: 62.6% * Polk County: 65% GEORGIA* Catoosa County: 50.35% * Chattooga County: 80.34% * Chickamauga City Schools: 21.71% * Dade County: 58.9% * Walker County: 72.55% * Whitfield County: 72.05% * Trion City Schools: 72.05% Source: Tennessee and Georgia departments of education. Georgia numbers are for current school year; Tennessee's are for last year.

Looking at states in the Chattanooga area, Georgia tied with Texas with the fifth-highest percentage of low-income students, or 60 percent, the report said. Tennessee, Alabama and South Carolina were tied for sixth place, with 58 percent of students eligible.

All were double the nation's lowest rate -- New Hampshire at 27 percent.

"This is not like SEC football, where you want to get higher in the rankings," Suitts said.

School districts need to figure out how to serve low-income students, he said.

"What is it lower-income students need? Middle-class and upper-class folks are doing pretty well in school," Suitts said. "What do we do to get these [students] achieving at higher levels? We too often have the least-effective teachers teaching in schools' highest levels of low-income students."

But DeVore said those percentages don't reflect the number of children in poverty. Nationwide in 2013, DeVore said, 21.7 percent of children were from families with annual incomes at or below the poverty level of $23,850 for a family of four. Free lunches are available to a family of four that earns 135 percent of that, or $31,000 annually, and reduced-price lunches can be had by families of four earning up to $44,123.

Also, the federal poverty figures don't include assistance such as food stamps, subsidized housing or Medicaid health care, he said. And the poverty figures don't factor in such factors as the South's relatively low cost of living.

"The poverty level was created 50 years ago, and it doesn't account for the state-by-state cost-of-living," he said.

A more accurate figure, DeVore said, is the U.S. Census Bureau's new Supplemental Poverty Measure that includes entitlements and taxes.

'Huge implications'

The Hamilton County Department of Education's 58.6 percent free-and-reduced-lunch rate in 2014 is up from 42 percent in 2000, but down from the post-recession years of 2010 and 2011, when close to 61 percent of Hamilton County students got free and reduced lunch, said Chilton.

"It's a reflection of stagnant wages," said Chilton, now an associate professor at Tennessee State University. "In Chattanooga, there were about 45,000 manufacturing jobs in the metropolitan statistical area in 2000. Since then, the total number of manufacturing jobs dropped to 27,300 in January 2010 and has rebounded to 31,000 today."

"Researchers know how poverty affects student performance," Chilton said via email. "Students from lower-income household are typically exposed to less enrichment activities (museums, travel, music lessons, etc.) than kids from more affluent households."

Chilton said, "If we can't figure out how to educate low-income kids (and we haven't done a great job in the past), it has huge implications for U.S. economic competitiveness in the future."

President Obama wants an additional $1 billion for Title I funding to help low-income students. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Jan. 12 announced that Obama will include an extra $2.7 billion in his budget proposal for schools, including $1 billion for schools "that serve the most vulnerable children."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at [email protected] or or or 423-757-6651.