Access to Meal Records Sought To Aid Needy Youths

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Educators should be able to use school-meal income data to identify needy children and target them for additional programs and services, the Council of Chief State School Officers urges in a resolution expected to be forwarded soon to the Congress.

Because records of children receiving federally subsidized free and reduced-price school meals constitute the best indicator of students' economic status that schools have at their disposal, the state chiefs argue, they should be made available within the educational sector to help identify which pupils may need extra aid.

A provision of the federal school lunch law, however, prohibits "any overt identification of any child" eligible for the program. The law, which seeks to prevent "the segregation of or any other discrimination against" children receiving subsidized school meals, also bars school food-service personnel from using the data for any purpose other than program administration.

U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations allow school food-service personnel to release total numbers of children participating in the school meals program within a school or school district, but not to identify individual children.

But advocates of information- sharing, who also include school food service officials, argue that the U.S.D.A. policy conflicts with U.S. Education Department rules permitting school personnel access to individual children's records as long as it serves a valid educational purpose and confidentiality is maintained.

Privacy Issue

The C.C.S.S.O. resolution, approved at the group's annual meeting this month, calls for a provision to allow parents or guardians "to grant access under federal privacy provisions to economic (school meal) data if for an expressed benefit" that would enhance teaching and learning.

Backers of the resolution acknowledge the need to protect students' privacy rights and avoid singling out those who qualify for subsidized meals. But they maintain that they could ensure that students not be stigmatized or embarrassed.

The resolution "would in no way compromise the confidentiality of the U.S.D.A. data, but just allow it to be used for other programs that would assist people," said State Superintendent John Bonauito of South Dakota.

The resolution points out that data gathered to determine eligibility for school meals would help schools identify children who qualify for a range of other federal programs, such as Chapter 1 and vocational and migrant education.

"If we are collecting data for the U.S.D.A. lunch program and that data can help in assisting these same students with other programs for youth at risk," said Mr. Bonaiuto, a member of the panel that drafted the resolution, "we should be using the same data rather than collecting it over and over."

He also noted that the federal rules conflict with directives promoting interagency collaboration to avoid "duplicated effort."

The data could be used to identify families that qualify for but are not receiving health care under Medicaid, said Annette Bomar, the director of the school- and community-nutrition division of the Georgia education department and the public-policy and legislative chairman of the American School Food Services Association.

The information could also be used to target poor students for such services as free transportation, supplies, clothes, and eyeglasses, said John Perkins, the director of the child-nutrition division of the Texas Education Agency and a member of a subcommittee that advises the state chiefs on nutrition issues.

"These children need all the help they can get," he said.

Improved Comparisons Seen

Some educators also say being able to use data on children receiving subsidized meals would offer a more complete profile of student performance on standardized tests.

"For state-to-state or school-to-school comparisons to be made, the comparisons should be made of schools that have students with similar characteristics," said Superintendent of Education Wilmer S. Cedy of Louisiana, who chairs the chiefs' task force on teacher and student assessment, which crafted the resolution.

Suzanne Triplett, an assistant state superintendent for research and development in North Carolina and chairman of the chiefs' assessment subcommittee, said that without economic data, statistical analyses of scores tend to overemphasize the role of race in student performance.

"If we had good income data ... we wouldn't need to use race for targeting our programs," she said.

The chiefs' resolution also argues that the federal regulations place school-nutrition personnel "in an adversarial relationship with school administrators" seeking access to the school-meals data.

"I get a lot of calls from people who are very worried about... being ordered to do something they know is against federal regulations," Mr. Perkins said.

In recent years, the Agriculture Department has been "besieged with requests from states to use that information for many different purposes," said Stanley Garnett, the assistant deputy administrator for special-nutrition programs. But, he added, "We have held firm based on our authorizing legislation that that information cannot be used.

Vol. 11, Issue 13, Page 17

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