Free, reduced-price meal data growing less useful as measure of student poverty
Three years ago, the Grants Pass School District 7 in southern Oregon chose to take advantage of the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools serving low-income students to provide free meals to everyone and stop asking families to complete applications for free or reduced-price meals (FRPL).
CEP certification uses other data on families that receive government assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Officials saw immediate benefits — particularly at the high school level, where students often don’t sign up for subsidized meals.
“For our district as a whole, it has been a tremendous benefit to be able to serve all students free breakfast and lunch,” Susan Zottola, the director of elementary education for the 7,100-student district, said in an email. “The biggest change was at the secondary level, where it was very difficult to get free/reduced lunch applications returned, and we knew we had students not eating due to lack of money. Our 'meals served' numbers skyrocketed, especially at the high school.”
And even though using the different poverty measure led to some schools having fewer students enrolled in those public assistance programs — because they “do not willingly connect themselves with anything they perceive as governmental,” Zottola said — the district made sure schools didn’t lose any staff members or programs funded by Title I.
Overall, the district has been able to find the balance described by Zoë Neuberger, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“It’s important for school systems to make sure that their interest in targeting education funding does not stand in the way of making school meals more accessible,” she said in an interview. “At the same time, it’s important for them to make sure that steps to make school meals more accessible don’t unintentionally result in high-poverty schools receiving fewer resources.”
Subsidized meal data less useful
But as more schools become CEP certified, FRPL is becoming an even less-reliable way to determine the poverty level of a school — and to make decisions about which schools receive specific services or staffing. Researchers also typically use FRPL in their evaluations of the impact of specific academic interventions.
A recent study led by Thurston Domina, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, details the problems with using FRPL to gauge which schools have the greatest needs.
Examining the records of all 8th-graders in one midsize California district, from the 2008-09 through 2013-14 school years, as well as similar data from all public school 8th-graders in Oregon from 2004-05 through 2013-14, the researchers compared students’ FRPL status with household income data reported on IRS tax forms and stored at the U.S. Census Bureau.
The results showed that there was “substantial variation” in family income within the same eligibility category, and that it was most obvious among those who don’t enroll in FRPL. In the California district, for instance, 13% of the students not signed up for FRPL appeared to be eligible based on their families' federal tax records.
“We've long understood that FRPL are inherently limited, for many reasons,” Domina said in an email. “I do think that the education research community needs to start working with districts, states and other policymakers to find better ways to measure student socioeconomic disadvantage.”
In addition, the study “demonstrates that many students from very low-income families do not enroll in the FRPL, and many students whose family incomes are relatively high do enroll,” Domina said. “So the paper indicates that the measurement problems associated with FRPL are far worse than I'd previously imagined.”
Specifically, the NSLP’s three eligibility categories — free lunch, reduced-price lunch, and those who don’t qualify for either — hide important differences among students in each category.
For example, the researchers write that those students whose families live just above the cutoff for the reduced-price category — 185% of the poverty line — are lumped together with other full-price-paying students from wealthy families. And students from the poorest families are combined with those who are better described as working class.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy organization, participation in CEP has grown significantly since it was first available in 2014. Almost 21,000 schools in more than 3,500 school districts have become CEP certified. And while Domina said that’s a positive shift for families, he adds that it’s less helpful on a policy level.
“While these changes are wonderful for making sure that kids who need lunch are getting it, it means that we as researchers and policymakers shouldn't be trying to build research and policy on the back of this measure,” he said. “If we're serious about making sure our schools work for students from across the socioeconomic spectrum, I think it's time for a serious national effort to measure and understand student family background.”
Using ‘more sophisticated measures’
Districts that are working to better integrate schools by students’ socioeconomic level are among those that need better measures of family poverty. And while Domina notes that IRS-validated income information is private, there are multiple other sources of data available. A 2016 report from The Century Foundation highlighted examples of districts using “more sophisticated measures” to make those determinations.
In the Chicago Public Schools, for example, the census tracts in which students live, parents’ educational level, median family income and the percent of single-family households are among the indicators used to develop a new measure of socioeconomic status. And in the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky, officials consider three census tract measures — family income, educational level and race.
Interestingly, Domina’s study found that FRPL data was still a good predictor of students’ academic achievement. While he said this was an unexpected result, he added that one explanation might be that FRPL data may capture the negative effects that instability in family income has on students since families can remain on the program even if their income increases.
“There’s an emerging research literature that suggests that income volatility can have powerful negative consequences for youth development,” he said.
Parents working irregular shifts are among those who have fluctuating incomes. A 2016 Urban Institute study showed that families are more likely to be evicted — and possibly become homeless — when their income is unstable, which can lead to children having to change schools.
“Homelessness among children can disrupt their education,” the authors wrote. “Changing schools during the school year can lower children’s long-term educational success and increase city school budgets.”
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