The rollout of a new “community eligibility option” for federal school meals programs has gone smoothly, but one of the new option’s major advantages—the elimination of family income-eligibility surveys—has generated difficulties for other federal and state education programs in states participating so far.
Historically, the ready availability of free- and reduced-price lunch counts has made such data a favorite tool for allocating poverty-targeted federal aid among schools, as well as for disaggregating achievement of low-income students for accountability purposes. In fact, some states use school lunch data in their own education funding formulas.
Under the new option, being used in 10 states and the District of Columbia so far, schools are barred from collecting income-survey forms in conjunction with the meals program. That’s proved troubling for the federal Title I program, which directs money to low-income schools to provide additional services for low-achieving students.
Only ‘Directly Certified’ Children
School lunch data play no part in determining how much Title I funding each district receives, but play a critical role in how districts subdivide their aid among individual schools. Although districts are allowed to use other types of poverty data for that purpose, “it’s next to impossible to get that [data] for a school attendance area within a district,” Montana’s state Title I director, B.J. Granbery, said at a conference of state Title I directors held in Washington this summer.
A similar difficulty involves disaggregation of student-achievement data for “economically disadvantaged,” students, a key subgroup that must be tracked for accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.
In a school participating in the new option, only children who have been “directly certified” as eligible because
they already take part in other federal need-based programs can be identified with certainty as economically disadvantaged.
That provision will result in a mismatch with low-income data derived from traditional school lunch counts in other schools, and it may pose problems for “growth models” that depend on tracking individual students’ achievement by demographic characteristics.
A More Direct Approach
Some states have adopted a more direct approach to obtaining comparable income data: conducting a separate family-income survey divorced from the meals program. For example, in 2012-13, Kentucky and Michigan went that route.
The U.S. Department of Education issued preliminary guidance in 2012 suggesting work-arounds, and it is preparing comprehensive guidance for release later this fall.
At the summer Title I conference, Todd Stephenson, a grants management specialist for the department office that oversees Title I, emphasized that the agency is determined that data issues will not inhibit adoption of the community-eligibility option.
“If there is only thing you take from what I am saying, it is this: We do not want, nor do we think, that Title I should be the reason a school does not select [the option],” he said. “We believe that Title I can work as well with the school lunch program ... as it has previously.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as USDA Rule Shift Throws Data-Collection Curveball