Screenshot of National Center for Education Statistics online database

Social justice looms large for many, if not most, education journalists. We care about the often substandard education of low-income children and the gap between the haves and have-nots. Take a look at the winners of the Education Writers Association awards on April 20, 2015. Most were writers who told the stories of students in poverty.

Beginning this school year and going forward, measuring and describing that poverty is about to get much muddier. That’s because the main statistic used to determine poverty in a school — the number of students who receive free or reduced-priced lunches — is starting to get diluted.  According to new rules that went into effect this 2014-15 school year, a school can provide free meals to all students if certain minimum thresholds are met. They no longer have to count exactly how many students are poor. And no other statistic that measures school poverty is as readily available. 

The consequences will be enormous to others besides journalists. Education researchers often look at whether an instructional technique works as well with low-income students as it does high-income students, for example. Without reliable poverty figures for each school, that kind of analysis will be inaccurate.

Many programs, including billions in federal Title I dollars for disadvantaged students, are tied to lunch statistics.  Philanthropic grants are given out this way, too. States and districts are scrambling to figure out how to allocate budget funds among schools without the precise school-lunch figures. New York City was so concerned about putting its federal dollars in jeopardy that it didn’t participate in free lunch for all this year. (Only children who are poor enough receive it). 

Free and reduced-price lunch figures are an imprecise measure of poverty, but at least they capture children who are being raised in families that earn no more than 85 percent above the federal poverty line. For a single mom raising two kids, that’s currently $36,612 per year (thresholds detailed here). By this measure, more than half of U.S. children attending public schools, from kindergarten to grade 12, are this poor, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

Data analysts have long noted that this lunch number has been rising far faster than the actual poverty rate. Between 2000-01 and 2012-13, the percentage of children eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch increased from 38 percent to 50 percent, an increase of 12 percentage points. In contrast, the percentage of public school children who lived in poverty increased from 17 to 23 percent, an increase of 6 percentage points. Why these two figures aren’t rising at the same pace is a mystery.

Despite the rapid growth in the lunch program, many advocates for the poor have pointed out that it actually undercounts students. That’s because many families don’t fill out the paperwork with their school and disclose their household income to claim their free food. Perhaps some families are concerned about their immigration status and don’t want to create a paper trail. Sociologists have suggested that some families are culturally opposed to accepting government handouts. Scholars have pointed out that many low-income Latino children, in particular, weren’t getting the food they should have qualified for.

In 2010 Congress passed a law to make it easier to get free lunch, and the implementation of something called “community eligibility”  was finally rolled out nationwide this 2014-15 school year. It allows for a whole school, a cluster of schools or even a whole school district to give their entire student body free breakfast and lunch every day if at least 40 percent of the students are already on some form of welfare, such as food stamps or Medicaid. In theory, that means a district can go from, say, 80 percent free and reduced price lunch to 100 percent overnight.  The poverty level didn’t jump 20 percentage points. It didn’t change at all, but everyone — even kids who wouldn’t have qualified for free lunch in the past — gets a free lunch under this plan.

Already more than 2,000 school districts and more than 13,000 schools are serving more than 6.4 million students participating in the community eligibility option, according to data from the Department of Agriculture, which administers the national school lunch program. To put that in perspective, 6.4 million students represent about 13 percent of the total U.S. public school population. We don’t know how many of them are actually poor, and how many non-poor kids are now getting swept in with them.

Data analysts are predicting a big jump in school poverty figures when the 2014 statistics are released, a year or two from now, and even more in future years as more and more school districts participate in community eligibility. How big this jump will be is unclear.

There are already some clues that school districts are handling their poverty reporting differently. The 2010 law allowed some states to pilot the community-wide lunch program early, beginning in 2011 with Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan. Both Detroit and Chicago were early adopters and feed all their public students for free. But both cities continue  to report the number of free-and-reduced-price-lunch students to the federal government the old-fashioned way. Detroit told public radio station WNYC that it’s still having families fill out the old income disclosure paperwork. A Chicago Public Schools spokesperson explained to me that it’s gotten rid of the lunch forms, but created a new form for families who want to qualify for free field trips and uniforms. It uses the same poverty threshold (85 percent above the poverty line) as the old lunch program. So it can add that number together with its figures on students who receive public assistance to report a “free/reduced lunch” number to the Department of Education.

But Cleveland, Ohio, which began giving free lunch to all students in 2012, apparently reported 100 percent free-and-reduced-price lunch to the NCES. The NCES hasn’t created a table yet, but its publicly-accessible database shows a ‡ symbol for how many children in Cleveland received free or reduced-price lunch in 2012-13, meaning the Cleveland number doesn’t meet its data standards.

This article also appeared here. 

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

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Jill Barshay is the founding editor and writer of Education By The Numbers, The Hechinger Report's blog about education data.