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Title I Officials Gain Access to Lunch Data

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The Department of Agriculture has agreed to allow Title I officials in local school districts immediate access to family-income data, unraveling what had become a vexing source of bureaucratic red tape.

New Title I rules that took effect this school year require districts to use family-income data to identify private school students in their communities who are eligible for the federal compensatory-education program. Some districts have struggled to gather that information.

Because most districts allocate Title I funds based on counts of children who are eligible for subsidized school meals, the data educators needed were sometimes tantalizingly close at hand. Because of federal privacy rules, however, the food-service administrators in the district or private school could not share anything other than the overall counts with Title I officials.

"Our law requires that the information be kept confidential," said Robert Eadie, the chief of the policy, program, and development branch of the Agriculture Department's child-nutrition division. "The food-service people could not give it to the Title I people."

The recent USDA decision will provide immediate help in counting poor children in private schools.

Educators will also need similar information about public school students in the future to comply with new requirements that they gather detailed achievement data on Title I students, broken down by income level and other categories. (See story, page 1.)

"It's hard to come up with evaluation data on a group of children if you don't know who they are," said Paul Brown, a program analyst in the Department of Education's office of compensatory education.

Some local administrators hailed the USDA decision.

"It's an easier way," said Margaret Weiss, the director of the bureau of nonpublic-school reimbursable services in New York City, where school officials have had a particularly difficult time gathering sufficient data.

More than 20,000 students in 240 New York City private schools are participating in Title I this year.

Rules Change

In the past, districts divided Title I money among public schools based on poverty rates and student achievement. Private school students were eligible for help if they lived in an eligible public school's attendance area and were achieving at low levels.

Under the new Title I law enacted in 1994, however, districts must divide funding based on counts of all low-income students living in each school's attendance area, including private school students. Private school students must meet income criteria to be eligible for services, and must also live in the attendance area of a school that receives Title I aid.

Public and private school officials scrambled to identify eligible children, usually with surveys that some parents regarded as an invasion of privacy. (See Education Week, June 21, 1995.)

Many private schools do not participate in federal school-meals programs. But private schools in urban areas often do, especially in the Northeast, according to Title I officials.

Federal privacy laws have allowed the release of counts of the number of students eligible for subsidized meals in a school or district, but not information about individual children. A law reauthorizing school-meals programs, enacted shortly after the 1994 law that revamped Title I, allows access to individual data for certain officials, including administrators of federal education programs.

"We don't generally implement provisions [of laws] without promulgating regulations," Mr. Eadie said, "but Title I really needed this."

The new policy was announced to school-meals administrators in a Feb. 23 memorandum. Mr. Eadie said the USDA plans to issue proposed regulations later this year.

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