Monday, July 25, 2016

New Metric Fails to Capture Large Number of Lynn's Low Income Student Population

Starting in 2011-12, the US Department of Agriculture piloted a program called the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which allowed districts or schools with at least 40% of students qualifying to offer free lunch and breakfast to all students without collecting eligibility paperwork. The benefits of CEP were reported as reducing the burden of reporting on families as well as on schools for collecting and accounting for lunch fees. Additionally, it would reportedly reduce the stigma of participating in school lunch programs because all students would be eligible. In Massachusetts, because many districts' low income population were based on participation in free and reduced lunch, however, there was a need to redefine low income in a way that was accurate and consistent between districts/schools that did and did not participate in CEP.  The state recently instituted a new 'economically disadvantaged' metric which categorized students as ED based on the following criteria:
  • Students whose families participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Students whose families receive Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC)
  • Students in Foster Care
  • Students with MassHealth
The previous low income measure was based on eligibility for free or reduced price lunch, receiving Transitional Aid to Families benefits, or being eligible for food stamps (SNAP). The change is metric from low income to economically disadvantaged has resulted in a considerable drop in the number of students categorized as 'poor.' Compared to school year 2013-14, Lynn saw a 42.4% drop in lower income students when the new metric was used in 2014-15; Revere's low income population was halved using the new metric. 

2012-13 LI
2013-14 LI
2014-15 ED
2015-16 ED

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has noted some keys reasons that fewer students are being identified as low income. Most notably, not all low income families enroll in public assistance programs. This is particularly true of undocumented families or parents but many other low income families as well who may simply refuse apply for assistance. More significantly, the state is not matching all of the students with the relevant public programs listed as criteria for being ED. For example, MassHealth Limited, which covers 16,000 children, was not a part of the initial matching process in the fall of  2015. Further, there are other unresolved technical problems in matching assistance programs with school enrollment data such that students enrolled in the relevant programs are not being matched and therefore left out of the 'economically disadvantaged' count.

School districts, particularly those with significant low income populations, are in disagreement with the change. In February, the Lynn School Committee passed a resolution against the accounting  change stating that the "under-counting of low-income students is harmful and unfair to districts like Lynn that are committed to serving all students and have come to rely on the extra funding for low income students provided through Chapter 70." Three quarters of Lynn's foundation budget is derived from state Chapter 70 funding. The Revere Public Schools' Superintendent Dr. Dianne Kelly is of a similar sentiment writing "this change is devastating the budgets of small and mid-sized urban districts... The fact is the state has chosen to not count thousands of poor kids when determining school funding." Chelsea's Superintendent, Mary Borque, went one step further saying "The integrity of the Chapter 70 now compromised." 

The new low income metric does indeed have major implications for districts' Chapter 70 funding allocations. To mitigate the effect of fewer classified low income students, however, the foundation budgets in fiscal year 2017 were adjusted in that the rates applied  to a district's ED population were based on the concentration of low income students. The base increment for ED students was $3,775 (Decile 1) with increases up to $4,135 (Decile 10) for districts with the highest concentration of ED students.  Lynn is in Economically Disadvantaged Decile 10 and received an additional $4,135 per ED student. Despite the increased aid for ED students compared to the FY16 rate of $3,142,  Lynn's overall foundation budget per pupil actually decreased in FY17 compared to FY16 even though the student population increased by 427. In fact, Lynn's foundation budget per pupil is just $11 more than it was in FY14 when the school population had 1,538 fewer students. It should also be noted that the English Language Learner, Vocational, Special Education In-District and Special Education Out of District student population and their subsequent increments all increased from FY16 to FY17.

The change in Lynn's foundation budget is largely due to the fact that Lynn is receiving increased low income student aid for a smaller population. In FY17, Lynn will see an increment of $37.5 million for its ED population of 9,078 (55.2%) of the student population. This is compared to low income student aid of $41.7 million in FY16. Using the low income numbers from FY16, Lynn would have seen nearly an additional $16 million if the FY17 rate of $4,135 per pupil was applied. This and the fact that the gap between the FY16 and FY17 foundation budgets is only $222,566 indicates that there is an issue in capturing all of districts' needy students and subsequently providing the aid that is necessary to adequately educate them. Consideration of the specific recommendations made in regard to low income students in the Foundation Budget Review Commission report should be made particularly as they relate to providing any and all relevant programming and supports for this population of students. It is evident that the new economically disadvantaged metric is missing a substantial proportion of Lynn's student population and as a result the district is missing out on much needed aid.

Data Taken from: