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How Many Poor Students Does a School Need to Get a Break?

A bill from Rep. Todd Rokita, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, would substantially scale back an option that lets high-poverty schools offer meals at no charge to all students without processing applications or tracking eligibility in the lunch line. The Education and Workforce Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on Wednesday.

Known as community eligibility, the option has been extremely popular with educators, parents, and children.  More than 18,000 schools serving more than 8.5 million students adopted it this year.  More than 7,000 of those schools might have to reinstate cumbersome paperwork under the Rokita bill, which would severely curtail schools’ eligibility for the option. 

Supporters claim the bill would “improve community eligibility by better targeting limited taxpayer resources to students most in need.”  But community eligibility is already targeted to needy students and the schools that serve them.

Typically, more than two-thirds of students in community eligibility schools would qualify for free or reduced-price meals if the school collected applications.  In many participating schools, the share would be much higher.  And, in schools with such high concentrations of poverty, students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals are typically not much better off than those who do.

Moreover, while all students in a community eligibility school eat at no charge, the school’s federal reimbursements for those meals don’t assume that all students would qualify for free meals if the school collected applications.

Under the current rules, schools or groups of schools qualify for community eligibility if their “identified student percentage” (ISP) — the share of students who qualify for free meals automatically, without an application, because another program has identified them as facing high risk of food insecurity — is at least 40 percent.  These “identified students” include children whose families receive SNAP (formerly food stamps) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance or who are homeless or runaway, among other groups.  

When policymakers established community eligibility, analyses showed that for every ten “identified students,” roughly six more students qualified for free or reduced-price meals based on an application.  So community eligibility multiplies a participating school’s ISP by 1.6 to approximate the share of students that would qualify for free or reduced-price meals if the school processed applications; the resulting percentage is the share of meals that are reimbursed at the highest federal rate, known as the “free” rate.  As a result, schools that qualify for community eligibility have anywhere from 64 percent to 100 percent of their meals reimbursed at the free rate. 

While schools are reimbursed at the free rate for roughly the same share of meals as before they adopted community eligibility, they can manage without charging fees due to the administrative savings from eliminating applications and the economies of scale from serving more students.  If those savings don’t offset the loss of fees, the district must use non-federal funds to close the gap.

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