Senior Policy Analyst
Thousands of high-poverty schools across the country have already adopted “community eligibility” to offer nutritious meals to all students at no charge. Officials in some school districts considering the option have voiced concerns that it would cost them federal or state aid that normally is allocated on the basis of family income information from school meal applications, which community eligibility schools don’t collect. However, as we’ve previously explained (here and here), alternative data sources are readily available to ensure that no school misses out on aid for which it qualifies.
The Agriculture and Education Departments have adopted policies so that school districts with community eligibility schools no longer need to collect individual income data to participate in federal programs. An important example is Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides federal funds to help the most educationally disadvantaged students.
Each school district’s Title I funding is based on census data, so community eligibility doesn’t affect it. School districts generally allocate Title I funds among schools based on their percentage of students from low-income families, as determined by school meal application data. But comprehensive policy guidance from the Education Department offers several other data sources that states and districts adopting community eligibility may use in selecting Title I schools and allocating funds among them — including school meals program data that’s readily available for all schools, whether they offer community eligibility or not. We explain those options in this brief report and this more detailed version.
Some states require individual income data to determine state education funding allocations, and some districts choose to collect this data for other purposes, including monitoring student achievement or determining who receives waivers from school district fees.
However, alternative data sources are available to meet these needs for community eligibility schools, as this report explains. Moreover, when districts do have to collect individual income data, they have found ways to do so effectively without connecting the forms to school meals.
The positive experience of states and school districts that have already implemented community eligibility shows that the loss of school meal application data should not dissuade schools from adopting community eligibility. Kentucky and Michigan have both offered community eligibility since the 2011-2012 school year, for example, and both had to require school districts with community eligibility schools to collect individual income data due to the way state education funding is allocated. Both states collected new income information forms from families without a negative impact on school funding.
Finally, the popularity of community eligibility in these states has continued to grow. Over the past three years, the number of participating schools has risen in both states, with three times as many Kentucky schools participating now as in community eligibility’s first year.