Credit: EdBuild
Credit: EdBuild

The number of American students in high-poverty school districts, as defined by having more than 20 percent of their students below the federal poverty line, increased during the Great Recession from 15.9 million to more than 26 million, according to a new report.

As the Washington Post explains, “that means nearly half of the nation’s 50 million public school students go to class with large numbers of peers who are growing up with poverty and all its difficulties.”

EdBuild, an organization launched to advocate for what it considers more equitable school funding nationwide, has built and distributed an interactive map charting the student poverty rates at all of the country’s school districts through the recent Great Recession.

The map reinforces an intuitive correlation many people would probably suspect: That when the overall economy suffers, school poverty rates increase.

It also indirectly perpetuates the chicken-or-the-egg debate around the basic correlation between the economy and education. Should Mainers invest in education to encourage the economy, invest in the economy to encourage educational attainment — or both?

Using the numbers in the EdBuild map, school districts in the southernmost portion of Maine, where about half of the state’s economy is generated, largely retained lower poverty rates even throughout the recession.

Other areas outlined on the map — like in Washington County, for instance — show the poverty rate among students rose from 21.2 percent just before the recession in 2008 all the way up to a high of 42.6 percent in 2011.

The interactive map follows the school district poverty numbers from 2006, before the recession hit, through 2013. See the map and zoom in on any district by clicking here.

According to the Huffington Post, an analysis by the Southern Education Foundation released earlier this year found that the percentage of American students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches has grown from 38 percent in 2000 to 51 percent today.

“We have these completely dysfunctional … irrational, antiquated, out of date, outmoded school finance systems,” David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, told the Huffington Post. “The foundational elements you have to have in place [to improve education] — which is an adequately resourced district and school — is just not the case in so many states across the nation.”

EdBuild leaders argue that despite the need for more support programs at high poverty schools — in the form of nutrition education and counseling for students more statistically likely to dealing with anxieties in their home lives — those schools are funded about 29 percent less per student nationwide than their wealthier counterparts.

“What we’re seeing is a huge spreading of poverty, but potentially more problematic is a deepening of poverty,” EdBuild founder and CEO Rebecca Sibilia told the Washington Post. “The needs of high-poverty districts are just compounded compared to a smattering of low-income students that may exist in middle-income areas.”

A 2014 report by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine found that while this state hasn’t been as hard hit by the recession as schools in Florida, for instance, poverty levels do correlate to student performance.

“As the percent of poverty increases in a school, student performance declines,” the report found, in part. “[T]he findings from this study are congruent with those found in other studies of school poverty and its effects on student performance. Schools with higher levels of poverty struggle to achieve high levels of student achievement.”

While the USM researchers weren’t evaluating the impact of the recession in particular, it’s not a big leap to conclude that when the economy craters, poverty increases and student performance decreases. In contrast, if the economy can be built back up, poverty decreases and student performance increases.

Other studies have found that the relationship likely works both ways. Groups like Educate Maine — which have brought business leaders together with educators — have coalesced around the notion that better education is a catalyst for sustained economic growth.

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.