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Measuring Student Poverty: Dishing Up Alternatives to Free and Reduced-Price Lunch

September 20, 2019

For decades, state policymakers and researchers have used receipt of free and reduced-price lunch as a way to estimate student poverty, but changes to the program have made it a less reliable proxy. This is in large part because of the expanded use of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provides free lunch to all students in qualifying schools and districts.

An accurate count is critical for distributing funding and assessing achievement gaps, so some states use other measures, looking only at participation in safety net programs or using census estimates. Our tracker shows how each state estimates its share of low-income students for funding and accountability purposes and what share of students were enrolled in CEP schools.

To show how the free and reduced-price lunch measure has changed, the tracker also compares the share of students currently eligible for the program with the share who would likely qualify based on their household’s poverty level.

 
 

How do states use measures of student poverty?

States use measures of student poverty to distribute funding to schools and to assess achievement gaps between economically disadvantaged students and their high-income peers.

What policy changes have eroded the usefulness of FRPL as a measure of student poverty?

Increasingly, schools and districts are using special FRPL provisions to provide free lunch to all students or that allow school lunch forms to be collected less frequently. Many schools now use the Community Eligibility Provision, which provides free lunch to all students when a school has a high share of students who are directly certified as low income. Expanding lunch to all students in the school is associated with reductions in suspension rates and improvements in academic performance.

How do states identify students eligible for FRPL?

States must ensure that students from households using SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) are automatically eligible for FRPL, but states can also rely on other data, such as participation in TANF or FDPIR. States may also identify students as eligible if they fulfill certain categorical eligibility requirements (e.g., participation in the foster care system). Some states are piloting a process to identify low-income students enrolled in Medicaid as eligible for FRPL. And many schools still use paper forms to collect family income data when needed.

What alternative measures are states using?

Although many states continue to use FRPL eligibility, supplemented by direct certification of students who participate in safety net programs, some states have steered away from FRPL altogether, using only safety net participation to assess poverty for funding or accountability purposes. Still other states use different measures, such as census estimates, to assess student poverty.