In the fight against poverty, public schools are the first line of defense. Teachers, counselors and administrators are in the best position to notice when a student is not getting enough food, doesn’t have the proper clothing or is otherwise experiencing something at home that makes learning difficult, and it is those adults who are in the best position to see that student gets the help he needs so that school is not such a struggle.

It is an expensive and demanding responsibility for schools, one that goes far beyond the basics of education. But it is important, as for the first time in at least 50 years, more than half of the students in U.S. public schools come from low-income families.

That means that every decision related to education, from funding to curricula to support services, must be made with poverty and near-poverty as a consideration. Failure to do so – that is, failure to create an educational system that provides as much opportunity for those at the bottom of the income scale as those at the top – will only widen inequality and stunt economic growth while making a mockery of the promise of upward mobility.

LOW-INCOME MAJORITY

The challenge is only becoming more immediate. A report by the Southern Education Foundation found that, as of 2013, 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, up from 38 percent in 2000 and 32 percent in 1989. In Maine, around 43 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, up from around 30 percent in 2000.

There are a number of reasons for the increase – a rise in single-parent households and immigration, increased enrollment at private schools by those with means and stagnant wages amid rising costs – but the latest recession is not one of them.

Instead, this is a long-term trend that has survived booms and busts, starting first in the South then spreading to the West and beyond, so that now public schools in four-fifths of the states, including Maine, have very high proportions of students from low-income families.

FALLING BEHIND

Those students, more often than not, enter school behind academically and struggle to catch up. They have more unaddressed physical and mental health problems than their peers, as well as behavioral issues, all of which call for extra attention.

They also don’t have the same access as others their age to enriching out-of-school activities, such as those involving art, music and sports. They don’t get tutoring, or get to go on family trips.

With every year, they fall further behind. Low-income students have higher rates of absenteeism. They score lower on standardized tests. They are more likely to drop out, and less likely to attend college.

Now, with more than half of public school students facing those obstacles, we run the risk of cutting our economy off at the knees. Left unchecked, too many Americans will become adults without the skills or knowledge to compete in the global workforce.

RENEWED COMMITMENT

The solution is a commitment to public education and all it has to accomplish.

That means not only valuing and rewarding the best educators, but also funding the pre-K and literacy programs that help low-income students get a fair start to school, as well as the preparatory and counseling initiatives that help them apply for and go to college.

That also means supporting the school-based social service programs that feed, clothe and counsel low-income students, and keep them engaged and learning after school and during the summer break.

It’s not easy, and it is certainly not cheap. But it is necessary. Failing to provide an equal public education to low-income students is unfair when they make up a third of all students. When they make up more than half of all students, it’s a potential disaster.