Your Schools

CMS’ new plan for free lunch program is causing problems

CMS cafeteria employees Judy Jefferson, left, and Trina Steele dish out green beans and chicken nuggets for children during lunch at Barringer Academic Center, one of the schools using the new Community Eligibility Provision.
CMS cafeteria employees Judy Jefferson, left, and Trina Steele dish out green beans and chicken nuggets for children during lunch at Barringer Academic Center, one of the schools using the new Community Eligibility Provision. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The plan sounds great: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools cuts down on the amount of paperwork schools have to wade through by simply giving free lunch to everyone in 74 schools with high percentages of low-income students.

But the new method is causing a number of problems for the school district as it plans for future years. In short, CMS now has no easy way of knowing which of its schools have the most economically disadvantaged students. That makes allotting teaching positions and classroom supplies a whole lot harder.

This is all part of a recently developed federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision. The details get pretty complicated, but essentially it means that a school with significant percentages of students on government assistance can go ahead and get free lunches for everyone.

It means that families in those schools don’t have to provide proof of income or any of the paperwork associated with applying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The method also eliminates any stigma attached to getting a free lunch and makes it so more children are getting the nutrition they need. Sixty-five school districts in North Carolina have adopted it, including CMS this year.

The problems showed up early. Student-athletes once could have their $100 participation fee waived if they qualified for free lunch. With that changing in so many schools, it caused all sorts of confusion for parents.

Now CMS administrators are bringing up more issues. The district had long used the free and reduced price lunch to determine how many students in a school were “economically disadvantaged,” a key metric. Scott McCully, executive director of student placement, told the school board that he no longer has easy access to this data as he draws new school assignment boundary lines.

I’ve also been requesting school-by-school poverty data for weeks to examine school diversity, and CMS apparently has no easy way to provide it.

CMS also divvies out extra teachers and school supplies based on the percentage of low-income students in a school. With no reliable measure, this becomes more difficult.

For next year, CMS says it will use the 2013 numbers. Going forward, they’ll use the percentage of students who qualify under the Community Eligibility Provision, which is based on the number of families who receive food stamps or other government programs.

This can be wildly different than the percentages who were on free and reduced price lunch. Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, for example, had 83 percent of students qualify for the lunch program, but only 59 percent qualify under the new guidelines, according to federal data.

The school board is going to discuss this in the future, especially as CMS applies for federal Title I money for low-income schools.

But it will be especially important to watch how this plays out as CMS begins a wholesale change of school boundaries. Some school board members have said they want more diversity in schools. This could make that more difficult.

  Comments