The State of America’s Children 2021 – Education2021-03-28T18:49:57-05:00

The State of America’s Children® 2021



All children deserve to attend diverse, well-funded schools where they feel safe and protected, where they have access to high-quality educators and resources, and where their education is culturally responsive, developmentally appropriate, and intellectually stimulating. They have a right to the robust enforcement of our nation’s civil rights and education laws and their education must be free from discrimination.

Unfortunately, this is not the reality for too many students. While COVID-19 has crippled our country’s public education system even further, America’s schools were deeply segregated and inequitable long before the pandemic. Poor children and children of color are likely to already be behind their wealthier and white peers when they start school, and as they progress through schools with smaller budgets and fewer educational resources, it is too often impossible to catch up.

  • Less than half of children born into household and neighborhood poverty are ready for school at age five compared with 78 percent of their wealthier peers.1
  • More than 75 percent of lower-income fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019, compared with less than 50 percent of higher-income fourth grade and less than 55 percent of higher-income eighth grade students (see Table 21).
  • More than 77 percent of Hispanic and more than 79 percent of Black fourth and eighth grade public school students were not proficient in reading or math in 2019 compared with less than 60 percent of white students (see Tables 22-23).
  • During the 2017-2018 school year, 19 percent of Black, 21 percent of Hispanic, and more than 26 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native public school students did not graduate on time compared with only 11 percent of white students (see Table 24).

Students of color in schools that are highly segregated along racial and economic lines have significantly less access to highly-qualified and experienced teachers and high-quality educational resources. Academic indicators such as standardized test scores and graduation rates indicate that learning suffers accordingly.

  • Only 1 in 8 white students attends a school where the majority of students are Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian, whereas nearly 7 in 10 Black children attend such schools.2
  • Every school district in the U.S. where segregation is high or even moderate has a large achievement gap.3
  • In 2017, 60 percent of Black children attended high-poverty schools with a high share of students of color while fewer than 9 percent of white children did.4

Large disparities in school funding mean that children living in lower-wealth areas—often children of color and children growing up in poverty—also attend under-funded schools that have fewer high-quality teachers, fewer curricular resources, larger class sizes, and less student support.

  • As of 2015, only 12 states distributed more funding to high-poverty school districts than low-poverty districts. In many states, the wealthiest districts spend as much as two-to-three times what poorer districts spend per pupil.5
  • Many states cut funding for education due to the Great Recession in 2008, and as of 2017, K-12 funding in 22 states and the District of Columbia remained below pre-recession levels.6
  • Studies suggest that a 25 percent increase in per-pupil spending during all 12 years of a child’s education could eliminate the average secondary education achievement gap between lower-income and higher-income children.7

Too many students, especially students of color, face exclusionary discipline policies that threaten to derail their education or over-policed schools that put their very safety at risk.Over the last decade, schools have increased investment in school policing under the guise of making them safer for students. However, police in schools do not necessarily make children safer, but rather contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and continue to disproportionately deny Black children, Latino children, and children with disabilities the opportunity to succeed.9

  • During the 2015-2016 school year, the suspension rate for Black students in public school was more than four times that for white students (see Table 26).
  • Fourteen million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. This is despite evidence that schools with these types of supports “see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates, as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents.”10
  • While students with disabilities made up only 12 percent of students during the 2015-2016 school year, they comprised 26 percent of students who received out-of-school suspensions.11

Children who are experiencing homelessness, in foster care, or returning from juvenile detention are especially likely to be educationally disadvantaged and are less likely to graduate from high school.

  • The estimated national graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness is only 67.5 percent, as compared to the overall national average for all students which is 85.3 percent.12
  • Because of the lack of adequate supports, students in foster care are more likely to be suspended or expelled, to score lower on standardized tests in reading and math, to be involved in special education, and to have higher rates of grade retention and drop out, and are less likely to attend and graduate from college.13
  • Without adequate educational resources, young people in juvenile justice facilities are chronically behind in school and make no meaningful progress in academic achievement while incarcerated. Approximately 2 in 3 drop out of school after exiting the juvenile justice system.14

When we deny our children the education to which they have every right, we deny them the chance they deserve to have a bright future. We must continue to work to equitably distribute educational resources, eliminate segregation and gross inequities in school funding, and eliminate discriminatory education policies that undermine equal opportunities for all students.

COVID-19 Leaves Marginalized Students Disconnected and Behind

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an education crisis that will impact this generation of students for the rest of their lives. While many school districts provided some distance learning opportunities during the 2019-2020 school year, children with disabilities, children from low-income and unemployed families, children living in rural communities, and children of color faced many barriers to accessing this modified education—including insufficient internet access, lack of support for online learning due to parent work schedules, and inability to effectively learn via modified formats, among others.

Too many students could not access modified education or lived in districts where no instruction was offered after schools closed for the last several months of the 2019-2020 school year.15 A survey of close to 1,600 families found that parents with low incomes were “10 times more likely to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning,” and children with Individualized Educational Program accommodations (which includes many students with disabilities) are “twice as likely as their peers to be doing little or no remote learning.”16 This untenable situation has carried into the 2020-2021 school year in districts across the country.