For decades, policymakers, administrators, and researchers have used free and reduced-price lunch (FRPL) status as a measure of student poverty for determining school funding and accountability. Under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), families completed household income eligibility forms. The forms helped schools certify students as eligible for FRPL and had the unintended benefit of providing a national measure of student poverty. Changes to the NSLP, however, have made FRPL status a less reliable measure of student economic disadvantage.
Beginning in 2010, policies enacted by Congress have led to the increased use of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which grants universal school meals to all students in districts and schools where at least 40 percent of students are eligible for FPRL. This can cause all students in those districts and schools, including those who would not otherwise qualify for free lunch, to be identified as low income.
To determine a student’s FRPL status, the CEP relies on direct certification, under which a student can be automatically certified to receive FRPL if her family participates in a public benefit program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Though direct certification is a promising alternative for identifying low-income students and eliminates the need for paper school lunch forms, differences in eligibility requirements for public benefit programs and the National School Lunch Program can lead to an undercount of low-income students. For example, a student who previously qualified for FRPL through completion of the paper form but whose family lives in a state with restrictive work requirements for public benefit programs may be overlooked in direct certification counts.
Practical barriers to enrolling in public benefit programs, such as having to submit applications in person and being required to provide official documentation, may also undercount students whose families do not have access to transportation or proof of income. Noncitizen families—who are subject to complex public benefit program eligibility rules or may not be aware of these programs—are particularly likely to be missing from direct certification counts.
The loss of a uniform measure of student economic disadvantage presents both a challenge and an opportunity to develop better measures. In this series, we look at the challenges that accompany changes to the NSLP and the alternative measures of student poverty that states are developing.