Achieving a Better Proxy for Low-Income Students in Connecticut
Jun 27, 2016 - 4 minutes
Connecticut currently identifies low-income students based on students’ eligibility for the USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Connecticut students who are eligible for these programs are generally referred to as being eligible for free and reduced price lunch, or “FRPL.” Despite the simplicity of using FRPL-eligibility to identify low-income students, researchers warn FRPL-eligibility may be an inaccurate proxy for low-income students, and instead, they suggest low-income students be identified using multiple income-verified measures.
Why does Connecticut need a new proxy for low-income students?
The need for a more accurate, verifiable proxy for low-income students is particularly important given the increase of schools and districts qualifying and participating in CEP. Since its introduction, CEP participation rates in Connecticut have increased annually and are likely to continue increasing as more and more eligible schools and districts adopt the program. For the 2014-15 school year, 37 districts and an estimated 125,000 Connecticut students were participating, eligible to participate, or near eligible to participate in CEP. To qualify for CEP, at least 40 percent of a school or district’s enrollment must be identified as eligible for FRPL via direct certification.
While CEP is a valuable nutrition program, it makes FRPL functionally unusable as a proxy for low-income students and has the effect of inflating FRPL rates in participating schools and districts because all students receive no-cost meals, regardless of family income. This is particularly problematic when it comes to school finance.
How does eligibility for free or reduced price meals affect how we fund public schools in Connecticut?
Districts and schools that participate in CEP have the potential to report 100 percent of their students as FRPL-eligible. This aspect of CEP not only affects the validity of FRPL as a proxy for low-income students, it has a significant impact on the way Connecticut funds its public schools. While Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula is no longer being used faithfully to distribute state education aid to municipalities, the framework from which the grant is based provides additional funding to students who are eligible for FRPL. As higher-need districts adopt CEP district-wide, potentially increasing their FRPL rates to 100 percent, it means all of the students in the district would be counted as low-income in the ECS formula, even though not all of the students live in low-income households.
As a result of these challenges, an alternative proxy for measuring low-income students will need to be identified in order to effectively and accurately provide critical resources to higher-need students through any needs-based funding formula.
Why is the addition of HUSKY A to direct certification a solution for identifying Connecticut’s low-income students?
After examining the various measures available to replace FRPL as a proxy for student poverty, our analysis shows the best policy option for Connecticut to measure low-income students, for purposes of a statewide school funding formula, is to add HUSKY A (Connecticut’s children’s Medicaid program, which includes children from birth to age 19 and their caregivers) to the measures currently used to directly certify students for school meals.
Direct certification is a method by which students can be deemed eligible for no-cost school meals through the National School Lunch program. This provision allows students who are categorically deemed at-risk of hunger to qualify for no-cost meals without needing to complete an application for FRPL. Connecticut students are directly certified if they are enrolled in SNAP, TANF, TFA, Head Start, or Pre-K Even Start. Additionally, districts can code students as foster, homeless, or runaway youth for the purposes of direct certification.
While direct certification would serve as a more accurate proxy for low-income students in a weighted school funding formula, it currently falls short in capturing a similar number of low-income students to those currently identified by FRPL. This is due to the low participation rates of various programs currently included in direct certification. Adding HUSKY A, and its high utilization rate to the list of means-tested programs already captured by direct certification will more accurately measure low-income student counts, while not decreasing the overall low-income student count in the highest-need districts.
Additionally, HUSKY A has been a consistently similar indicator of student poverty to FRPL over the past 10 years and has a slightly higher income threshold than FRPL and a considerably higher income threshold than most other federal programs already included in direct certification. This means the addition of HUSKY A to direct certification will not likely decrease aid to the highest-need districts in Connecticut or increase overall state spending by large amounts during a difficult fiscal climate.
Furthermore, the addition of HUSKY A to direct certification would help school districts. When more students are directly certified, the number of children eligible for no-cost meals, rather than reduced-price meals, increases and districts are able to claim a higher rate of reimbursement, thereby increasing federal funding for the highest-need schools.
While FRPL offers a much-needed service to schools and provides students with beneficial nutrition, it is not an accurate or useful measure of student poverty or an effective tool for identifying low-income students. As a result, Connecticut must utilize recognized best practices and implement appropriate proxies for low-income students, such as the addition of HUSKY A to direct certification. A better proxy for low-income students in Connecticut means more targeted funding, more accurate data, and more opportunities for Connecticut’s students.
Connecticut School Finance Project. (2016). Achieving a Better Proxy for Student Poverty in Connecticut. New Haven, CT: Author. Retrieved from http://ctschoolfinance.org/assets/uploads/files/Better-Proxy-for-Low-Income-Students-in-CT.pdf.