The education press is buzzing about this new report from the Southern Education Foundation that, for the first time, a majority of U.S. public school students, 51 percent, come from low-income homes.

It’s even worse in Arkansas, where the study shows 61 percent are from low-income homes, fourth highest poverty rate. (Low income is judged by the percentage qualified to receive free or reduced-price meals.) Southern states bring up the rear, with Mississippi the poorest, at 71 percent.

Why does it matter? Because low income is an indicator of academic success. Sure, low-income kids can learn. But economic instability makes it harder. Studies show, too, that the quickest way to lift poor and minority children is to have them in classes with middle-income kids. Writes the Foundation:

After low income children became a majority of the public school students in the Southern states in 2006, the SEF report observed: “Currently the South alone faces the implications and consequences of having a new majority of low income students in its public schools… the South also faces a new global economy that requires higher skills and knowledge from all who seek a decent living. In this brave, new world, the people and policymakers of Southern states must realize that continuing the current, uneven level of educational progress will be disastrous. They must understand more fully that today their future
and their grandchildren’s future are inextricably bound to the success or failure of low income students in the South. If this new majority of students fail in school, an entire state and an entire region will fail simply because there will be inadequate human capital in Southern states to build and sustain good jobs, an enjoyable quality of life, and a well-informed democracy. It is that simple.”

The Little Rock School District, for example, is 74.9 percent free and reduced price lunch. Its results are regularly pounded by school critics, led by the Walton Foundation-paid lobbyist for charter school creation, Gary Newton. He’s among the people calling for a state takeover of the district for poor performance of six schools, all of them overwhelmingly composed of poor, minority students. (Pulaski County is about 57 percent and North Little Rock 71 percent poverty.)

The Walton’s lobbyist, Newton, and their dollars helped the recent creation of a charter middle school, Quest, in upper crust Chenal Valley. It has a 14 percent poverty enrollment. I’m guessing its test scores will be fine. eStem, the downtown charter school with a great performance record heavily backed by school reformers, has a 31 percent poverty enrollment. When such schools drain higher income students from Little Rock, they leave a district that becomes still poorer.

You can invoke the reformers’ mantra all you want about the soft bigotry of low expectations. But poor students here and everywhere are a greater challenge to educate and concentrating still more students from that demographic in a single place has rarely proved a winning strategy. Even the charter schools that serve predominantly poor families enjoy an edge from self-selection by motivated families willing to seek and comply with tougher terms for participation. That’s an edge, too.