NJ auditor: Free-lunch errors skew aid

Students’ poverty rates are estimated by eligibility for a free or reduced-price lunch.  But many ineligible students are getting a lunch discount, concludes a report by New Jersey’s auditor. “School districts have little incentive to question applications because a higher participation rate also increases their state aid,” the report  charges.

“There is a significant error rate,” state auditor Stephen M. Eells said of the school lunch database. “It’s not accurate by a long shot, and I don’t think we should be using it to determine state aid.”

New Jersey gives schools an extra $4,700 to $5,700 per free or reduced-cost lunch recipient.

For 2011-12, the income limit for a family of four will be $29,055 for the free meal program and $41,348 for the reduced-cost meal.

A state audit in 2009-10 found at least 37 percent of lunch participants were ineligible or produced no supporting documentation. A random sampling in 10 districts found 23 percent were ineligible and another 24 percent could not be verified because they did not provide Social Security numbers. I’ll assume most of the 24 percent are here illegally; they probably do have low incomes.

Using lunch-program participation to generate poverty rates has many critics. For one thing, free lunch applications go way down in high school, apparently because even low-income students can’t stand the food. Using lunch data may overestimate poverty in elementary school and underestimate poverty in high school.


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