Most schools use applications for the school breakfast and lunch programs to determine students’ income levels for the federal “Title I” program for disadvantaged students, our new report explains, but schools offering community eligibility — a new option that allows schools in high-poverty areas to serve free meals to all students without charge — no longer collect those applications.
Community eligibility thus has important implications for Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to improve the achievement of the most educationally disadvantaged students. The most important implications relate to allocation of Title I funds among schools within a school district and Title I accountability policies requiring schools to monitor achievement levels for students from low-income families and take appropriate action when those levels are inadequate.
For the vast majority of public schools, approval to receive free or reduced-price school meals has been the primary, often the sole, indicator of low family income for Title I purposes. Schools or school districts that adopt community eligibility no longer collect those data, so districts must find other ways to assess students’ income levels. Fortunately, comprehensive policy guidance from the U.S. Department of Education gives districts a wide range of options to choose from so they can implement community eligibility with minimal interference with Title I.