There's an Unexpected Downside to More Kids Getting Free Meals at School

Greater numbers of districts are providing breakfast and lunch to all students, but they’re no longer accurately counting the number of children living in poverty.

(Photo: Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

May 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

At a time when more impoverished kids than ever are attending public schools, the idea seemed like a no-brainer: Eliminate the stigma those kids might feel when receiving government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches by offering free meals to all students, including their better-off peers.

But like other well-intentioned policy shifts, “free meals for all” programs some districts have adopted are having unintended consequences that could hurt the very children the idea was designed to help.

The blurred lines between economic classes in the cafeteria have made it harder to determine the number of students who receive free or reduced-priced meals—the primary statistic used to determine the level of poverty in a school or a district. Without that number, federal officials allocating billions of dollars in Title I funds, as well as education policy analysts and philanthropic foundations that want to help needy kids learn, won’t have accurate information to determine if a school needs the help.

Jill Barshay, a columnist for education analysis website The Hechinger Report, wrote that “more than 2,000 school districts and more than 13,000 schools are serving more than 6.4 million students participating in the free-lunch-for-all program,” roughly 13 percent of the entire U.S. public school population. Yet because of the new guidelines, she wrote, “We don’t know how many of them are actually poor, and how many non-poor kids are now getting swept in with them.”

The lack of an accurate gauge of a school’s poverty rate, she added, could skew federal Title I funding, typically used to provide classroom services and support for poor or struggling students. The U.S. Department of Education uses a formula based on the number of needy students to determine a school’s or a district’s eligibility; already, Barshay wrote, a number of school districts are scrambling to come up with a more accurate method for head counts, and the state of New York opted out of free-lunch-for-all programs to avoid the problem altogether.

“Free and reduced-price lunch figures are an imprecise measure of poverty, but at least they capture children who are being raised in families that earn no more than 85 percent above the federal poverty line,” she wrote.

Yet education analysts who study the link between poverty and classroom achievement say the free-lunch count should have been a guide at best, and impoverished students are usually undercounted.

“When we work with schools, districts, states, and others, we’re always real careful” when calculating the poverty rate, says Kathleen Budge, an education professor at Boise State University and an author at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, a Washington, D.C.–based education policy center.

“The number of kids who qualify [for free meals]—those are floor numbers,” says Budge, a veteran teacher and former principal who, with William Parrett, coauthored the book Turning High-Poverty Schools Into High-Performing Schools.

Even before free-for-all meals, she says, some low-income parents refused to apply for help because of a no-handouts cultural philosophy—or, in the case of undocumented immigrants, because they didn’t want to risk getting caught.

That’s despite the fact that Title I resources “come with the expectation they will be spent” to help the kids who most need it, says Parrett, director of Boise State’s Center for School Improvement & Policy Studies and a specialist in teaching at-risk and underserved children. “When carefully spent, [those dollars] can make a difference for kids,” adds Parrett.

If the numbers are underreported, however, it could mean less money for programs that can address chronic classroom issues needy kids face: tutoring to close achievement gaps in reading and math, anti-truancy programs, speech or language therapists for special-needs students, college-readiness classes, and STEM extracurricular activities such as an after-school robot team. In some states, data gleaned from students enrolled in free or reduced meals programs help districts determine school boundaries; in others, it can have an impact on state and federal funding formulas.

And most experts agree money matters: the higher the per-pupil funding, the more likely a student or school can meet or exceed academic achievement goals.

Ultimately, Budge says, the good intention of offering free meals to schoolchildren is a symptom of a larger problem: There are more poor kids than ever before in American classrooms, which means they’re starting further behind and have more challenges than their wealthier peers. Fold in the general expectation that all kids can and will achieve if given a level playing field, and the problem becomes even more complex.

“We’re a nation that uses the word—and you’ll probably find that word in the mission statements of [many] schools—we talk about ‘all kids,’ ” she says. “We have an expectation in this country that’s pretty resolute, that when we talk about kids we’re talking about all kids. But all kids are not equal in terms of their lives.”

To level the playing field and give poor kids a good education, “we’ve gone from access to opportunity to outcomes," Budge adds. "I think that we’ve raised the ante on public schools; I’m not sure we’ve raised the support to achieve what we’re really asking them.”

Education leaders may talk a good game but, Budge says, “I don’t know if we’ll ever reach consensus on playing a good game.”