I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, July 2, 2011

No "Free Lunch"

I'm really hoping Bruce Baker puts down his sparkler for a minute this weekend and weighs in on NJ's "free lunch" v school aid debate:
Thousands of students getting free or reduced-cost school lunches may not be eligible for the program, a report released by the state auditor this week finds. But school districts have little incentive to question applications because a higher participation rate also increases their state aid, the report states.
As a result, the state auditor has recommended that the state stop using the school lunch program enrollment to calculate how the aid is distributed. 
“There is a significant error rate,” state auditor Stephen M. Eells said of the school lunch database. “It’s not accurate by a long shot, and I don’t think we should be using it to determine state aid.”
The 428,000 students in the free meal program in 2010 would generate about $2 billion in extra “at-risk” state aid under the state school funding formula, which provides an extra $4,700 to $5,700 per student in the program.
This is actually a question that's plagued me for a while. I had several discussions with professors back when I was getting my second totally useless graduate degree (kidding! - see link) back in Florida about the accuracy of using "free and reduced lunch" as a measure of student poverty.

The answer, basically, is that it's the best tool we've got. We don't go around and take surveys on students' economic backgrounds, because that would be expensive and intrusive and probably not much more accurate than using "free lunch" data.

But, once again, "reformers" like NJ Senator Mike Dougherty - who wants to distribute state aid equally, regardless of student characteristics - haven't thought this through:
“We are talking about millions of dollars in school aid, and if it’s based on faulty information, we should know that,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, Hunterdon, whose “Fair School Funding Plan” calls for a formula that would essentially provide the same amount of state aid for every child in the state, no matter where they lived.
But advocates for children say participation in the school lunch program, while not perfect, is the most effective method available for determining the number of low-income children in a school district who need extra help.
“If anything, studies show that the lunch program undercounts the actual number of students who are poor because some never apply, especially at the high school level,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has represented students in the state’s poorest school districts. 
The state audit says that in 2009-10, districts statewide found that 44 percent of those verified were no longer deemed eligible for either free or reduced-fee lunches. Taking into account families that reapplied, at least 37 percent were deemed ineligible, mostly because the applicants failed to respond to requests for supporting documents.
Gee, poor people without supporting documents - what are the odds? Are we really prepared to spend all kinds of new money to deal with this "problem"?

This reminds me of the plan to expand testing to all different grades and subject areas just to have more (bad) data to "evaluate" teachers. Are we really going to divert some more of our limited resources away from the classroom and toward programs that only serve to make corporate reformers feel better about themselves?

Of course, Dougherty's plan would eliminate the need for any data on student poverty; if every kid gets the same amount of state aid, why even track where the poor kids are? In fact, he would probably sleep better at night, blissfully ignorant of the damage he's doing, if he didn't know how much money he took away from the kids who need it the most.

1 comment:

calugg said...

This is just meanness. While the school lunch data are flawed, they are the best indicators of poverty in public schools that we have.

Doughtery is engaging in class warfare of a sort---take from the poor and give to the rich.

This is also supremely bad public policy....making poor kids more miserable isn't exactly going to boost academic achievement in those public schools that serve large numbers of poor children.

*SIGH!* It's despicable, simply despicable.