Schools are supposed to help kids build character, socialize, and learn critical thinking and academic content. But we also ask schools to do a lot more: to offer extracurricular activities, serve as community centers and feed children. Particularly in low-income areas, the successful completion of these tasks can require Herculean efforts.
That’s why we should celebrate initiatives that ease the burden on low-income schools. The Community Eligibility Provision, enacted in 2010, does just that.
Some children in low-income households qualify automatically for free or reduced-price meals. But others need to apply for it, and some of the neediest students fall through the cracks. The application process also creates large amounts of paperwork for school staff members.
Community eligibility solves this problem for high-poverty schools. Schools that have an Identified Student Percentage (ISP) of 40 percent – that is, 40 percent of the students automatically qualify for free or reduced-price lunch through enrollment in other programs – can offer free meals to all students. Schools get reimbursed based on student needs. In other words, community eligibility cuts through bureaucracy, eliminating the application and verification processes and simplifying reimbursements.
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Yet a new proposal by congressional conservatives would restrict community eligibility, increasing administrative burdens in more than 7,000 schools and threatening 3.4 million students’ access to school meals. Lawmakers from the Education and the Workforce Committee may vote soon to raise the ISP threshold to 60 percent. Because ISP numbers don’t capture low-income students who must typically apply for free or reduced-price meals, it would render all but the highest-poverty schools ineligible for community eligibility.
Raising the threshold would save a little money, but the overall savings of about $1.6 billion over 10 years wouldn’t come close to offsetting the administrative burden, increased social stigma for low-income students, and negative health and academic effects it could create.
House Republicans propose redirecting these savings to summer food programs for poor students and a higher reimbursement rate for school breakfast programs. Good ideas, but instead we should raise the small amount of money needed to make sure students have breakfasts and lunches during the school year and summer.
Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minnesota, has said that “providing children access to nutritious meals is a priority we all share.” Republicans also have long argued that there’s far too much government bureaucracy; in the very same bill in which they’re proposing unnecessary modifications to community eligibility, they argue they want to reduce “administrative challenges for school lunch officials.”
If Kline and his colleagues really mean what they say, they should oppose this harsh proposal.
Jared Bernstein is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Ben Spielberg also works at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.