- With universal school meal policies gaining traction, districts are starting to explore how they would gauge student eligibility for programs serving low-income children if they no longer had free and reduced-price data to rely on, speakers said during a Thursday webinar held by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the Food & Research Action Center.
- Possibilities include using data from direct certification, state income tax systems, or the U.S. Census to gauge family income, speakers said.
- Instead of gauging free and reduced-price meal eligibility, direct certification — which currently identifies children on Medicaid or other programs for automatic school meal eligibility — has been suggested for use as an alternative indicator of student poverty. But while that approach holds promise, it can be challenging to rely on because some families do not or cannot use public benefits, said panelist Kristin Blagg, a senior research associate at the Center on Education Data and Policy for Urban Institute.
Universal school meal policies are beginning to trend in state legislatures, and the White House recently announced its goal to create a pathway that ultimately — albeit slowly — achieves free school meals for all. With the adoption of universal school meals, the need to collect applications for families to qualify for free and reduced-price meals would become unnecessary.
Five states currently have their own universal school meal programs in place, including California, Maine, Nevada, Massachusetts and Vermont, Blagg said.
Most states have used free and reduced-price meal data to designate students as economically disadvantaged for purposes of funding or accountability, Blagg told K-12 Dive after the webinar.
“So when you switch to a universal meals program, you do face this choice of, ‘Do we take advantage of the fact that we don’t have to collect school meal forms anymore, or do we need it for informing some other part of our work?’” Blagg said.
Districts also use free and reduced-price meal data to understand which of their schools have the highest share of low-income students, so they can know where to best allocate funds, she said. Providing college application fee waivers for students is just one type of program that often relies of free and reduced-price meal data, she said.
As districts shift to community eligibility provisions — which provide high-poverty districts and schools free meals for all students — or states adopt universal meal programs, alternative poverty indicators will be needed to help districts understand where to allocate financial resources and to assess the academic progress of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, Blagg said.
Another possible solution is linking students to household state tax data to determine if they are at or below a certain poverty level, Blagg said. This practice, currently in place only in New Mexico, can be difficult to measure for families that don’t file taxes or in states without their own income tax systems, she said.
In addition to exploring direct certification and state income tax systems as alternative poverty indicators, districts could consider using data from the Census and the American Community Survey, she said.
Districts could also rely on Census data from the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates Program, which produces single-year estimates of school-age children in poverty for all school districts in the U.S., Blagg said.
Oregon, for example, already uses this data to allocate funding to school districts, she said.
“The advantage of this is this data is produced by the Census, it doesn’t require any additional student data,” Blagg said.
But this approach can present challenges, she said, particularly if a state has a lot of charter schools or implements school choice policies, because students could live in one area but attend a school in a different neighborhood.
“You’re going to get more uncertainty around the level of need for students who are attending in your district versus living in your district,” Blagg said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is conducting demonstration projects to expand direct certification by adding Medicaid to automatic enrollment and identification processes for students eligible to receive a free or reduced-price meal without an application.
Even with some existing challenges, direct certification is creating a richer dataset for measuring student poverty with the latest addition of Medicaid data for states that have decided to opt into the expanded program, said panelist Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, an organization founded by FRAC to improve public policies to end food insecurity and poverty.
“We have never calculated poverty in this country completely accurately, ever,” Wilson said. “We’ve gotten better, we want to get better, and I want us to use direct certification and model it as best we can.”