School-Age Children

Poverty and Diversity Challenge Schools Nationwide Gao ID: HEHS-94-132 April 29, 1994

During the 1980s, an increasing number of America's school-age children was poor, more racially and ethnically diverse, and at risk for school failure. These problems were not limited to the largest cities or a few states or geographic areas. The growing number of poor and at-risk children means that many schools will have to address the needs of children who change schools frequently; are potentially low achievers; and have other difficulties, such as health and nutrition problems. Addressing the needs of children from a multitude of language and cultural backgrounds also poses a growing educational challenge for school districts. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act--the federal government's main vehicle for addressing the needs of poor and at-risk children--will also face increasing demands as the number of these children increases. Ignoring these demands now may cause greater problems later as needy children potentially face a future of joblessness and lower incomes. Addressing these demands during a period of budgetary constraints will be difficult, however, and will challenge lawmakers and school officials to make every dollar count.

GAO found that: (1) between 1980 and 1990, the numbers of poor school-age children increased by more than 400,000, to 7.6 million, while the total school-age population decreased by 5 percent; (2) since 1990, the total school-age population and the numbers of poor children have increased; (3) most of the poor school-age children lived in large urban or rural areas in the East and South, but the West and Southwest had the greatest increase in poor school-age children; (4) between 1980 and 1990, school-age children became more racially and ethnically diverse with poor children exhibiting the greatest changes in diversity; (5) the numbers of children from immigrant households who had low English proficiency also increased dramatically; (6) although populations of at-risk children lived throughout the country, significant numbers of at-risk children were concentrated in a few states; (7) the problems facing schools in all geographic areas from the increasing numbers of poor and at-risk children include meeting the needs of children who change schools frequently, are potential low achievers, have other difficulties such as health and nutrition, and have low English-proficiency; and (8) the needs of poor and at-risk children will place a greater demand on federal programs at a time of greater budget constraints.

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