Home > Uncategorized > Free and Reduced Lunch Eligibility is a Misleading Metric… and it Masks the Widening Inequality in Schools

Free and Reduced Lunch Eligibility is a Misleading Metric… and it Masks the Widening Inequality in Schools

Today’s NYTimes has an op ed article by Susan Dynarsky describing the flaws with our country’s current metric for measuring poverty in schools: free and reduce lunch counts. And the biggest flaw of all, according to Ms. Dynarsky, is that it’s use understates the widening gap between children raised in persistent poverty and those who qualify for free and reduced lunches off an on. She describes the parameters for subsidized school as follows:

Nearly half of students nationwide are eligible for a subsidized meal in school. Children whose families earn less than 185 percent of the poverty threshold are eligible for a reduced-price lunch, while those below 130 percent get a free lunch. For a family of four, the cutoffs are $32,000 for a free lunch and $45,000 for a reduced-price one. By way of comparison, median household income in the United States was about $54,000 in 2014.

Then, using data from Michigan she examined the student performance on tests more closely and determined that “...the achievement gap between persistently disadvantaged children— those who qualified for free and reduced lunch throughout their elementary school years– and those who were never disadvantaged is about a third larger than the gap that is typically measured.” Dynarski found that by eight grade these persistently poor children were three grade levels behind their peers… and on closer examination she found that they almost consistently begin Kindergarten behind their peers and, worse yet from a policy perspective, the persistently poor could be identified very early.

When we look back on the early childhood of persistently disadvantaged eighth graders, we see that by kindergarten they were already far poorer than their classmates.

We can see this with national data. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, run by the Department of Education, tracks a sample of children who started kindergarten in 1998. Among children who were eligible for subsidized meals through eighth grade, household income during kindergarten was just $20,000. For those who were only occasionally eligible, it was closer to $47,000, and for those never eligible, $80,000.

Is it any surprise that a child whose household earnings are four times as much as another child has a better background entering school? And is it even less surprising when you examine these data?

These data also show that persistently disadvantaged children are far less likely than other students to live with two parents or have a college-educated mother or father. Just 2 percent of persistently disadvantaged children have a parent with a college degree, compared with 24 percent of the occasionally disadvantaged (and 57 percent of those who were never disadvantaged).

Instead of using free and reduced parameters, which were chosen decades ago when granular data was more difficult (and expensive) to gather, Ms. Dynarsky suggests we use “…administrative data on eligibility for means-tested programs such as welfare benefits and food stamps”, data that can “…distinguish between children who are extremely poor and those who are nearly middle class.” By doing so it would be possible to identify the children whose families are the neediest of all and direct more resources to the schools that serve them.

Alas, Ms. Dynarsky works in academia where such obvious data-driven decisions are self-evident and seemingly easy to implement… But here’s the practical reality: to give more to the neediest would either require raising more money for schools (clearly the best solution but just as clearly a non-strarter) or re-directing money from marginally deprived children to those who are neediest: a zero-sum game that is the optimal use of scarce resources but also a non-starter. So we’re stuck where we are until some political leader is willing to speak the truth to voters about public education: money matters and we need more if we hope to restore equal opportunities in our country.

 

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