The blog of the Urban Institute
January 27, 2021

COVID-19 Relief Programs Aimed at Alleviating Student Hunger Could Affect School Funding

January 27, 2021

To help students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government eased restrictions to allow schools to provide students with free meals. These initiatives provide a valuable benefit to hungry students, but because of the way schools measure student poverty, they could make it difficult for policymakers to target funding to schools serving students most in need.

Understanding how schools serve meals to low-income students

In March, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allowed the US Department of Agriculture to grant waivers to states to make it “as easy as possible” for children to receive school meals during school closures and remote learning. The waivers, which mimic procedures already available via summer meal programs, allow schools to feed students by allowing parents to pick up meals from schools, delivering meals on bus routes, or entering into public-private partnerships to provide meals to students in rural areas. These waivers also make it easier to serve meals to low-income students in school districts with lower  levels of student poverty. Importantly, these waivers allow schools to provide meals to all students, regardless of whether they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) or directly certified through participation in social safety net programs. These waivers are still in effect during the 2020–21 school year.

Despite these flexibilities, child food insecurity has still increased to unprecedented levels since the pandemic began. One in 4 families with school-age children reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days, and for families with Black or Hispanic parents, the rate was 4 in 10. Moreover, less than one-third of parents of school-age children, regardless of household income, reported receiving any type of school meals in September.

New flexibilities also mean new uncertainties for counts of low-income students

States typically count low-income students by using either the number of students who have submitted FRPL applications or the number of students deemed eligible via direct certification, which links school rosters with public benefit program data, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Because direct certification is an automated process, states that count low-income students using direct certification are able to quickly assess changes in student need. Counts of directly certified students will likely rise, as increased economic hardship and expanded flexibility for the SNAP program have increased SNAP caseloads overall. In a recent report, we use data from several states to estimate that average SNAP caseloads increased by about 9 percent from May through August 2019 and the same period in 2020.

On the other hand, FRPL application numbers are down, and states relying on these data to allocate resources face new uncertainties in student need. The decline is caused by the new flexibilities, as many families of FRPL-eligible students are already receiving free meals via grab-and-go or delivery and, therefore, have little incentive to turn in applications, which must be newly collected each year. Schools have also faced remarkable new challenges to learning and teaching during a pandemic and were likely unable to make the typical effort to get applications returned.

These declines in student FRPL counts are likely misleading. FRPL counts typically capture a larger share of low-income students, as the applications count students whose families have need but do not participate in a social safety net program (and thus were not directly certified). Though many reduced-price-eligible students could very well become newly eligible SNAP recipients and be counted as directly certified, there are still students who, because of the pandemic, are now eligible for reduced-price meals but are not being identified as such because they are not turning in FRPL applications.

Changes in student poverty measurement affect funding and accountability

School districts often receive additional state funding based on the share of students in poverty, and no state is left unaffected. Thirty-one states use FRPL rates as a factor in determining how much additional funding districts receive, while a small number of states rely on direct certification or other measures. Moreover, many districts distribute federal Title I funds to schools within the district based on their relative share of low-income students, and the lack of FPRL applications this academic year has schools concerned they may have to restructure staffing at schools that receive Title I funds (which are typically those where needs are greatest).

In addition to challenges in allocating resources, school districts must report performance on state exams for students deemed economically disadvantaged. States rely on school poverty measures to report on this subgroup, so inaccuracies add to the already challenging matter of statewide testing in the 2020–21 school year.

Despite these challenges, it is not too late to rescue student poverty counts. Schools can still collect FRPL forms from eligible families through the remaining months of the 2020–21 school year. In fact, some districts have increased efforts to collect this information, using local radio ads, press releases, robocalls, and flashing website banners to encourage families to submit their forms. In addition to school-led efforts, administrators and policymakers must understand how student poverty measures have been affected by the pandemic and work to mitigate the potential consequences for school funding and accountability.

Joan Sandritter, a cafeteria worker for the Muhlenberg School District, in Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania, gets grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches from a rack to distribute them to families on September 10, 2020. The program has been going on since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and is continuing this school year as all education in the district is being done virtually. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

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