How a federal free meal program affected school poverty stats

In 2014, schools had a new way to give students free breakfast and lunch, paid for by Uncle Sam. Instead of asking low-income families to apply for the meals, a school district could opt to give everyone free food if at least 40 percent of the student population was already on other forms of public assistance or fell into a needy category, such as being homeless or in foster care.

This new “community eligibility” option was a policy change by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the school lunch program, and was intended to reduce paperwork and make it easier for schools to feed hungry kids. But counting kids who qualify for free or reduced price lunches had also been the way we tracked student poverty. There was some concern that school districts could mistakenly be reclassified as 100 percent low income overnight. New York City, for example, began offering its 1 million public school students free breakfast and lunch in 2017. More than 60 percent of the city’s students met the public assistance criteria but the children of relatively wealthy parents also attend public schools. Some school buildings don’t have many poor kids in them.

Many sounded alarms that $16 billion a year in federal aid for low-income students could be misdirected to not-so-poor schools. School ratings and individual teacher evaluations across the country were supposedly at stake because of the poverty assumptions embedded in how much added value a school or teacher is providing. Even the most simple reading and math test scores might be corrupted, misleadingly showing improvements in the achievement of low-income kids.


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