Friday, October 4, 2013
More Districts Offer Free School Meals to Students and Must Find New Ways to Count Low-Income Students
School districts around the country are making free school breakfasts and lunches available to all students in a continuing rollout of changes to eligibility requirements by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA eliminated the requirement for family income-eligibility surveys for free and reduced-price meals for the 2013-2014 school year. (No link to the USDA’s website is available because of the federal government shutdown.) In a report released this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Center said that “[m]ore than 2,200 high-poverty schools serving nearly 1 million children in seven states — one in ten children across these states — operated under community eligibility during the 2012-2013 school year.” Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a “community eligibility option” allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer breakfast and lunch free to all students at no charge. On Wednesday, official from the Dallas Independent School District called the move “a wonderful benefit” as it will help ensure that students are not hungry during the school day and eliminate the paperwork that districts have to complete for meals eligibility. However, eliminating eligibility surveys does have a downside—districts used free- and reduced-price lunch data to Title I aid and measure accountability testing under No Child Left Behind Act for schools that serve low-income students. In a 2002 “Dear Colleague” letter, the ED approved of using school lunch program data to disaggregate student assessment scores, for “student eligibility for supplemental educational services, and under certain circumstances, in prioritizing opportunities for public school choice.” Now that the USDA surveys are no longer required, districts will have to find new ways to identify low-income students for those purposes. The ED offered guidance for districts to gather data in a 2012 policy letter here.