Students from low-income households are harder to teach, and Illinois has a growing number of them. 1.05 million students come from families whose income makes the kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at school, a typical measure of poverty or low-income status for schools. That’s 51½ percent of the Illinois school population, the first time that figure has ever been over 50 percent.
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Former Gov. Jim Edgar, one of the founders of the education group Advance Illinois, says it’s a problem. “The problem is straightforward: Our education systems are struggling to serve low-income students. Achievement gaps within minority groups based on income loom large,” he said.
Take fourth-grade reading proficiency, for example, an indicator of the kind of success a student will have throughout school. The low-income kids trail non-low-income kids in every racial category, and overall are 36 percentage points behind the non-low-income kids.
Edgar says Illinois also has a growing number of English-language learners – students for whom English isn’t their first language – and they, as a group, are harder to educate than those whose first language is English.
In spite of these challenges, and the budget pinch for schools, the state has held its own in fourth-grade reading proficiency, increasing by 1 percentage point from two years ago to 34 percent.