Nearly half the public school students in this country live in poverty, and you can probably guess which states have skewed that statistic.

A new study from the Southern Education Foundation confirms that the number of children in poverty in the public school system has dramatically increased, and no place more significantly than in the South. In 17 states — almost all of them Southern — a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, according to the report “A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and the Nation.”

Those numbers are no surprise to the folks at the Southern Regional Education Board. The group was founded by southern governors some 55 years ago because they recognized the link between education and economic vitality.

Joan Lord, vice president for education policies for SREB, says that part of the problem is not just that enrollment of students in poverty increased across the South, it’s that school enrollment in general increased significantly in the past 10 years.

So more students — including more poor students — means resources are spread thinner and thinner still.

Part of the reason for this increase, Lord says, is that many families with school age children have not yet reached their maximum income potential. “We have to support young families in a way that gives them and the children a boost,” Lord said.

Bright spots, good ideas

Lord notes that there is good news in the South when it comes to education.

The SREB has success stories to tell, from its report “A Decade of Progress: How SREB States Achieved Exceptional Gains.”

Even though South Carolina isn’t one of the eight states highlighted for exceptional progress, our state did merit a notable mention: average high school graduation rates have increased. The class of 2009 achieved a 66 percent averaged graduation rate. That’s the number of diploma recipients in a senior class divided by the estimated first-time, ninth-grade class size four years earlier.

And while the overall percentage of folks who graduated in South Carolina was lower than the national average, the state’s 7 percent increase was greater than the national average increases — in fact, South Carolina helped propel the national rate forward. That’s good news.

More than money

The Foundation report notes that students in the South and West — where the percentage of students in poverty is highest — receive the least educational resources, less than $9,300 per pupil. Compare that to the Northeast, where per pupil spending averages $16,045.

But it’s possible, Lord said, to have success without spending more money. That should make certain state leaders happy.

In fact, the SREB study found that in the eight states that made significant gains, there were a number of common tools they used.

For instance, planning helps get to the root cause of educational roadblocks, Lord said. Texas school leaders realized from analyzing test results that there was a key algebra concept students statewide were failing to grasp. Unraveling that problem led them to realign the math curriculum all the way back to the third grade.

But leadership might be the most important key to success. “You’ve got to have cooperation and mutual support all the way along the line,” she said, and that means leadership at the state, district and school level.

Solving the poverty-diversity-school enrollment trifecta will take a lot of work for a long time. Lord said. But there’s definitely inspiration and practical application from the success stories. And Southern states need to take note of that.