August 22, 2012

Use of Funding Formula to Identify Children at Risk Defended by Save Our Schools

In response to the suggestions that using the “Free and Reduced” lunch program for identifying children at risk for state funding is inaccurate and/or abused, Save our Schools (SOS) is taking a stand to the contrary.

In Princeton, about ten percent of the public school population currently qualifies for Free and Reduced lunches.

SOS is a nonpartisan grass roots organization that had over 9,000 members across the state at last count. Its goal, say SOS founders, is to ensure “that all New Jersey children … have access to a high quality education.”

“This is not right,” said Princeton resident and SOS spokesperson Julia Sass Rubin of the proposal to abandon the Free and Reduced lunch system as a measure for funding in New Jersey. “There is no huge abuse of the program; it works very well. There are more kids not getting what they’re supposed to be getting than those who are.”

SOS cites the work of Rutgers University graduate school of education professor Bruce Baker as evidence supporting use of the current formula. Mr. Baker is the author of “Financing Education Systems,” as well as many research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets, and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, such as ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students.

“There is no better alternative,” said Ms. Sass Rubin of the criterion used by Free and Reduced lunch. “The danger for damage — to the most vulnerable kids — is very high.”

School funding is currently being examined by the state’s Education Funding Task Force, a seven-member commission appointed by Governor Christie. Critics believe the state’s goal is to discredit the current formula in order to cut funding to urban school districts.

“This supposed significant abuse is a myth, perpetuated for political reasons, in order to undermine school funding for children living in poverty,” said SOS member Sarah Rappoport speaking at a recent Task Force meeting. She noted that an audit being used as evidence for the formula’s failure did not include 25 percent of the children who participate in the lunch program automatically because their families receive food stamps or welfare. Another oversight was the fact that the audit only looked at three percent of the families whose children receive lunches and who are considered ‘on the margin’ of eligibility.” Families who responded to income report requests and who had an income of $12,001 a year ($1 over the limit) were found to be ineligible. Ms. Rappoport further reported that, based on statistics from the State Auditor’s office, “the majority of people who were found to be ineligible actually consisted of those who did not respond at all to the letter requesting additional documents.” The failure of poorer families to respond to such queries is not uncommon, due to frequent moves and/or homelessness; insecure mailboxes; inability to be speak or read English; fear of doing something wrong; and being “just too busy trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads by working three jobs.”

While Ms. Sass Rubin allowed that there may be instances of abuse, the statistics used by the state are “complete bunk. It’s a witch hunt as a way of getting at the funding for low income kids.”