School lunch data was an inaccurate measure of student poverty, even before the shift to universal eligibility, write Ishtiaque Fazlul, Cory Koedel and Eric Parsons in Education Next. Now that all students in high-poverty schools are deemed eligible for a free lunch, the data is even more unreliable.
In Missouri, the number of students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch is 40 to 50 percent higher than the number who meet eligibility criteria, they estimate.
Students whose families rely on welfare or food stamps and children in foster care are automatically signed up for a free lunch, they explain. Parents of other students are surveyed on their family income. Nobody verifies the numbers or checks to see if family income has changed.
Educators may believe that students who eat healthier breakfasts and lunches will do better in school, they write. "But districts also may be incentivized to encourage and approve parent applications in order to gain access to additional federal, state, and local funding to support low-income students."
"State accountability policies that track achievement gaps by poverty status also commonly use free and reduced-price lunch enrollment to identify students in the 'low-income' group," write Fazlul, Koedel and Parsons. If the data is inaccurate, there will be less funding for the truly needy -- and more excuses for schools primarily serving not-very-needy students.
They suggest analyzing a range of factors to determine students' disadvantages and needs.
Minnesota is close to passing a bill that funds free school meals for all students, regardless of family income, reports the MinnPost. Legislators are working on a new poverty metric to determine how to distribute "compensatory aid" to high-need schools.
Maryland analyzed Medicaid records to identify more families in need, especially in suburbs, reports Erin Cox in the Washington Post. "More than half of public school students now qualify for "free or reduced-priced meals, which means their families earn 185 percent of the federal poverty level or less."