How Much Can We Trust Poverty Numbers in School Lunch Program?

Education News Colorado reports on the latest K-12 student enrollment numbers from the Colorado Department of Education, leading with the following:

State enrollment figures released Monday show the number of Colorado students living in poverty climbed this year at its highest rate since at least 2003 as families grappled with the dismal economy.

As of Oct. 1, 39 percent of students in kindergarten through grade 12 were eligible for participation in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, a common indicator for poverty.

To qualify for the program, a family of four must report an annual income below $40,793.

Colorado’s overall enrollment was up 1.7 percent this fall, to 832,368 students, while the poverty rate was up 3.08 percent. Enrollment growth has typically exceeded growth in poverty in recent years.

Given the state of the economy, with Colorado at an unusually high 7.5 percent unemployment rate, this trend should not surprise anyone. In Colorado, school districts are given extra money through the school finance act for having more students deemed “at-risk.” Our state uses the Free and Reduced Lunch poverty numbers to make that “at-risk” determination.

I don’t doubt that most of this increase in student poverty is genuine. But at the same time, it reminded me of an Education Next story I read recently about possible fraud in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). With the loose guidelines in verifying poverty eligibility, how much can we trust these numbers?

David Bass, the John Locke Foundation investigative reporter who authored the Education Next story, concluded with some possible solutions:

But the possibility of waste and fraud warrants a closer look from elected officials. Because the NSLP is the nation’s second-largest food entitlement, unqualified families could be costing taxpayers billions each year. The challenge is balancing program integrity with income verification policies that might have a chilling effect on eligible families. At the very least, Congress should establish clearer guidelines for school districts to investigate suspected fraud and explore alternative income-documentation methods that would provide greater reliability for program data. Given the amount of taxpayer dollars devoted to school lunch, and the range of policies and research based on the program, lawmakers can’t afford to do nothing.

As if we needed one more problem with the existing K-12 system to consider how to deal with. But given the very real possibility, I don’t think we can afford just to stick our head in the sand.