Colorado allocates additional school district funding for “at-risk” students, currently defined as those eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. But this measure may not fully capture economically disadvantaged students who need of extra academic support, and it hinders some school districts from adopting universal meal programs, causing students to lose out on academic, behavioral, and health benefits.
This report, using summarized information and feedback collected from Colorado stakeholders and national experts as well as Colorado-specific data, assesses seven proposed at-risk measures. The measures we assess are as follows:
- Identified student percentage (ISP). Share of students directly certified or categorically eligible for free meals
- ISP with Medicaid expansion. Share of students directly certified or categorically eligible for free meals, supplemented by an expansion of the direct certification link to Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus program participation
- Share below a given poverty level, as determined by tax records. Share of students below a given federal poverty level, as determined by a link to state and federal tax records
- Neighborhood Socioeconomic Status (SES) Index. Student needs weighted based on five SES neighborhood factors, linked to each student’s census block group
- Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. Share of students from a household below the federal poverty level, based on the students’ residential location within a geographic school district
- School Neighborhood Poverty Estimate. School-level measure of the average income-to-poverty ratio of 25 households with children living closest to each school, based on five-year American Community Survey estimates
- Alternative family information forms. Information families submit directly on household size, household income, and potential other need factors
Assessing data on these measures and considering feedback from our survey and from interviews, we assembled a set of criteria that an ideal at-risk measure should meet. For Colorado, a strong at-risk measure for district funding would improve free meal access, capture all students, align in scale with the current free- and reduced-price lunch share, reflect actual student enrollment, and minimize school burden and cost. When assessing these options on these criteria and on their potential to affect funding for districts serving different groups, we identified three potential new “at-risk” measures for Colorado:
- ISP with student-centered SES neighborhood weights. If Colorado wanted to adopt a new at-risk measure within the next year, we recommend that it adopt the ISP, combined with a weight for student’s neighborhood SES.
- ISP, supplemented by a link to Medicaid data, with student-centered SES neighborhood weight. If Colorado has more time to implement a measure, we recommend a new at-risk formula similar to the first option that includes a Medicaid link for direct certification. Adopting a Medicaid link would also expand the share of schools and districts eligible for universal free meals, capturing additional benefits for students. This measure could also be combined with a weight for student’s neighborhood SES.
- Link to state revenue data, with a student-centered SES neighborhood weight. If the state wants to eliminate the link between school meal eligibility and the at-risk measure, we recommend implementing a link to state and federal tax data. This measure could be combined with a weight for student’s neighborhood SES.
Adopting one of the three recommended measures will help uncouple eligibility for school meals from school district funding, enabling more students to access free meals and allowing for a definition of “at risk” that is more expansive than just household income.