We’d like to think that when Kansas legislators inquire about the increase in the number of public school students who receive free and reduced-price lunches, lawmakers’ real concern is the growing poverty in Kansas, not the possibility that school districts are manipulating the numbers to bolster their funding.
We’d also like to believe that school districts are above such chicanery. In the unlikely event that some cheat, any individuals involved should be criminally prosecuted.
In response to inquiries from legislators and the school efficiency commission about the increase in free and reduced-price lunches, the Kansas Association of School Boards did some appropriate research. Among its central findings was that the number of students who qualify for the free or discounted lunches has risen from 33 to 50 percent in the last 15 years. Apart from its impact on school funding, that’s a remarkable — even alarming — jump.
It matters because although the discounted lunch program is federal, it operates on state funding. Schoolchildren qualify for free lunches if their parents prove, through family-income documentation, that they earn no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty rate. For reduced-price lunches, family income cannot exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty rate.
School districts typically check only a small random percentage of parental forms, which means that some students who receive the discounted lunches perhaps should not. It’s also possible, however, that students who would qualify for discounted lunches don’t get them because of the lack of paperwork.
The number of students who do qualify for the program has a direct effect on the amount of money school districts receive from the state. That’s because of the premise that schools with a high percentage of low-income students have greater funding needs.
In 2005, school districts received an extra 10 percent of the state’s per-pupil formula for each student from a low-income family. Over the next four years, after the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that state funding of public education was unconstitutionally inadequate and inequitable, the extra money for schools with low-income students increased substantially.
Kansas Association of School Boards spokesman Mark Tallman pointed out that the study found no evidence to support the suggestion that additional state funding contributed to the increase in students eligible for the discounted lunches. On the contrary, the association found that the increase in applications for discounted meals paralleled U.S. Census Bureau data on childhood poverty.
It’s good that Kansas lawmakers, even grudgingly, are ensuring that poor students get at least one nutritious meal a day during the school year. Perhaps if lawmakers made a greater commitment to reduce poverty, fewer students would need the help.