FAQ: Expanding School Meals and Implications for School Funding Formulas

kids_count_logoMassachusetts schools are phasing-in a set of improvements to their school meals programs--expanding free breakfast and lunch for many kids, increasing federal revenue, and reducing administrative record-keeping.These changes help ensure that more kids eat healthy meals every day they're learning at school, and yet, for technical reasons, they have forced the state to consider some adjustments to how it distributes school funding. MassBudget's new factsheet responds to some frequently asked questions about this re-distribution.

The following is an overview of some of the basics that the FAQ covers:

  • Historically, at the beginning of every school year, families have filled out income forms to apply for free or reduced school meals.
  • As the best available data on family income, the state used meal status to determine the relative need of different school populations and distribute funding accordingly.
  • Recognizing that many low-income families are already enrolled in other public programs that use similar income criteria (e.g. food stamps), districts have been simplifying the school meal application process by directly enrolling kids for free meals if they are already enrolled in one of these other programs. This new process is called Direct Certification.
  • Building on Direct Certification, schools with at least 40 percent of their kids directly certified for school meals now have the option to provide free meals to all students. This program is called Community Eligibility.
  • While Community Eligibility provides more kids with school meals and reduces administrative work, it does mean that these districts collect less data on student income levels. Since the income data gathered by the traditional meal forms has historically been used to inform many school funding programs, and since Community Eligibility districts no longer collect these forms from every year, the state needs to determine a new approach for counting low-income students in these districts.
  • In response, our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education proposes using a new "economically disadvantaged" measure for counting low-income students. This measure is very similar to Direct Certification and DESE proposes using it for all districts.
  • But this new "economically disadvantaged" measure identifies many fewer low-income families than does the traditional free and reduced meal application process, and the size of the difference between these two measures varies widely by community. Therefore, it is insufficient for Chapter 70 purposes to simply replace free and reduced meal headcounts with "economically disadvantaged" estimates.
  • Recognizing this, DESE has proposed some related adjustments to the rates used for low-income kids in the Chapter 70 formula. But this approach is likely to be difficult in practice.
  • Alternatively, the state might consider other options for improving our Direct Certification process and for ensuring accurate low-income headcounts for Chapter 70 funding purposes. The state of California, for instance, is continuing to use traditional free and reduced meal application counts for non-Community Eligibility districts and adopting a new, simplified income form for Community Eligibility Districts. In order to minimize administrative work, they are collecting this new income form only once every four years.

Direct Certification and Community Eligibility represent meaningful improvements for students in Massachusetts, helping ensure that kids eat healthy breakfasts and lunches while in school - and we know that children learn better when they are not hungry. These new programs have led to some transition challenges for school funding mechanisms, but options exist for preserving these positive improvements while limiting or avoiding technical problems.