The Great Recession may be over but many in Pennsylvania are still suffering from its effects. This is most obvious in our public schools where the number of students who qualify for free- or reduced-priced lunches, a poverty measure, is disturbingly high. Almost half of all public school students qualified for the lunch program in 2013-14. When we look at these students and their school districts we find:
- The state, overall, saw its student poverty rate increase from 36.51% to 43.56% between 2008-09 and 2013-14, a jump of 7 percentage points.
- Across Pennsylvania, poverty was the norm in 2013-14:
- Two-thirds of school districts had a poverty rate equal to or higher than 33%.
- Half of all school districts suffered from concentrated poverty, where the poverty rate equaled or exceeded 40%, the federal threshold for qualifying for Title I school-wide funding. This federal funding is necessary to help school districts manage the added difficulty of educating students going to schools and living in neighborhoods with little relief from poverty.
- About 25% of school districts had a poverty rate equal to or higher than 50%.
- The state’s largest school districts–Philadelphia and Pittsburgh—educate more than 160,000 students and had poverty rates of 80.76% and 73.11%, respectively, in 2013-14.
As a state, we have crossed the 40% Title 1 concentrated poverty threshold.This alone should set off alarm bells. In addition, severe budget cuts that have disproportionately targeted low-income districts mean that too many students are in schools that cannot financially function as places of learning. Just look at Northeast High in Philadelphia: more than half of its students qualify for free or reduced lunches, and yet it only has a total school budget of $5 per student.  That’s $5 for everything—books, supplies, labs, and anything else needed to make a school a school.
We cannot rebuild our economy when so many of our schools are awash in poverty and unable to meet their mission of educating our children. We must invest more, not less, in our public education system so it can provide all our children with a quality education and lay the groundwork for a strong economy for the future. We must and can do better.
You can read more about school district poverty on the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center’s Education Facts webpage.