Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

May 28, 2013

MAUREEN HAYDEN: State switching 'metrics' in school funding formula

— When my children were younger, they’d bring home a big packet of forms each year from their schools, with instructions for me to fill them out so they could turn them in.

Routinely, the packet included an application for the federal government’s National School Lunch Program. Signed into law in 1946 by President Harry Truman as a “national security” measure, its goal was to provide children from poor families the nutrition they needed to sit through a day of school and learn.

Routinely, I tossed the application into the trash. My income, though modest, put me well above the 130 percent of the federal poverty level needed to qualify.  

But had I filled it out, I falsely could have reported my income with likely little repercussion, enrolled in the federal lunch program and gotten my children free meals every day.

The potential for defrauding the program — and some compelling evidence of it in places like Chicago, where well-paid school administrators were caught signing up their own children — is why the program won’t be used as an indicator of poverty for school funding in Indiana after the next school year.

Unlike the federal food stamp program (officially, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), no proof of income is required when parents apply for the federal school lunch program.

Had I applied for the program under false pretenses, I would have had to sign a form saying my reported income was accurate and the same form would have warned me that I “may be prosecuted” for “purposefully” giving false information.

But it’s a toothless warning. About the only verification mechanism in place for the program is one that requires school districts to try to verify the incomes of up to 3 percent of participants considered “error prone” — that means people who reported their incomes as just a little bit under the income eligibility limit.

Folks who don’t comply with a school’s request run the risk of getting bumped out of the program. By law, schools can’t ask people who apply for the program to provide their income information up front.

The National School Lunch Program is a national security measure. Every day, millions of children living in poverty in this nation are guaranteed not just a good meal for lunch when they’re at school, but many eat a good breakfast too, thanks to the program. Nationally, we spend about $8 billion a year on a program that feeds 31 million children every day.

But the rise in numbers are prompting questions. About 20 percent of children in the U.S. are living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources. But about 60 percent of schoolchildren nationwide are enrolled in the federal school lunch program that gives them their meals free or at drastically reduced cost.

In Indiana, about 17 percent of our children are living in poverty (a number on its own that should horrify us). About 49 percent of Indiana schoolchildren are on the federal school lunch program.

The enrollment numbers are critical for another reason: In Indiana and many other states, they’re used to determine how much extra money every school district gets, above their base per-pupil rate.

Since 2011, it’s the only metric used by Indiana to calculate the “complexity index” in the state’s funding formula. Of the $6 billion in state dollars that go to K-12 schools, about $1 billion is tied directly to the complexity index.

After next school year, the state is switching metrics: It’s going to use the number of students who get free textbooks through the state’s textbook assistance program for low-income families.

Republican legislators who pushed for the change say the program will be audited to root out fraud and diminish the temptation for parents to cheat. Let’s also make sure it doesn’t deny a meal to a hungry child in need.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for CNHI newspapers in Indiana, including the Kokomo Tribune. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.