Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Why Indiana Won't Use Free Lunch Numbers To Indicate Poverty Anymore

Elle Moxley/StateImpact Indiana

A teacher helps a student pick up a bowl of pineapple for lunch.

Academics, researchers and state education officials have long used enrollment in a government program that pays for students’ meals to help gauge poverty in a particular school or district.

(It’s a metric we use at StateImpact, too.)

But Indiana lawmakers have dropped the use of the “free and reduced price lunch” number in favor of a different metric for measuring poverty in schools. From CNHI statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden:

Tucked inside the budget bill passed by the General Assembly last month is a provision that ends the use of the program to determine levels of poverty-based funding for school districts after next year.

Instead, the state’s textbook assistance program, which provides free schoolbooks to low-income children, will be used to calculate how much additional money the state gives schools to help educate children most at risk for failure.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Luke Kenley said he and other GOP legislative leaders have “lost confidence” in the accuracy of the federal school lunch program as an indicator of poverty.

“There’s no accountability in the federal program,” Kenley said.

The change is significant: Of the $6.6 billion in state funds that go to K-12 schools in Indiana, about $1 billion of it is directly tied to the federal school lunch program. The more students a school enrolls in the program, the more state money the school district gets.

Kenley suspects the federal school lunch program is susceptible to “fraud and error,” as David Bass puts it in EducationNext.

That possibility aside, free and reduced price lunch (FRPL) numbers only work so well in measuring poverty anyway. From The New America Foundation’s Federal Education Budget Project:

While FRPL data is generally a reliable poverty indicator in the elementary grades, it is less so in the high school grades. Because free and reduced price lunch is an opt-in program at the majority of schools, researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-represented in school lunch program enrollment. High school students may refuse to enroll in FRPL due to a perceived stigma attached to the program.


  • Indy Parent

    Did the legislature also decide to end the use of free and reduced lunch eligibility to determine which students are eligible for private school

    • kystokes

      Interesting question, Indy Parent. I believe FRPL is written into the voucher law as the basis for voucher eligibility (as I replied to Jami above).

  • Jo Blacketor

    Will IDOE consider reviewing how “attendance” numbers are calculated as well? It’s hard to believe that on average many inner city schools have a 97% attendance. I wish!!

    • Karynb9

      What would you like to see them move to for calculating attendance, Ms. Blacketor? You’re certainly someone who would be able to help bring about that change, so what do you think are some of the specific weaknesses of the current formula and what changes would you propose?

      • Jo Blacketor

        Counting real butts in seats. When you read reports year after year (12 years plus) that constantly reflect 97% – something is wrong.

        • Karynb9

          So what are they doing now that is NOT counting “real butts in seats”? What are the specific nuances within the current attendance reporting policy that trouble you? I would hope that someone like you who sits on the State Board of Education would be able to have more insight into this issue than simply, “I don’t know what they’re doing wrong right now, but since the numbers are hard for me to believe, they must be doing SOMETHING wrong.” How is that productive when it comes to finding solutions to the problem that you believe exists?

          • School Librarian

            I do NOT have a solution – other than counting butts in seats or using GPS on IPhones, but it is my experience as an educator that some schools that report very high attendance rates are LYING. Or, students stay long enough to be counted, and leave.

    • Christopher Pupillo

      Still trying to defund inner city schools, are you? Your true colors come shining through Jo. You still have no interest in serving students, only the partisan destruction of public education that is part and parcel of Republican politics.

  • Jami Beckham

    How will this change in policy affect the Indiana Student Voucher Program?

    • kystokes

      Interesting question, Jami. I believe FRPL is written into the voucher law as the basis for voucher eligibility.

  • Mothership49

    David N. Bass is a contributor to the National Review and other conservative publications. He works at a private foundation for “economic independence for our grandchildern” or something like that. Which is a conservative euphemism for “I don’t want pay taxes EVER” including taxes to fund any public programs including education for the poor. The National Review might as well be the Indiana State Legislators’ Bible the way our elected officials repeat and repeat and repeat the endless talking points of the Far Right.

    • SkepticalDistribution

      Uh huh. Certainly not worth learning enough to debate his conclusions then, huh?

    • Mothership49

      Ask the legislators in Indiana if they are researching this on their own and coming to their own conclusions. That would be a more important than my personal opinion, don’t you think? The easy thing for members of the Indiana House and Senate is to read one article by someone they agree with anyway and then stop researching the alternatives. It’s not so much about me as about them.

  • Jenny

    So if I understand this correctly, poverty-based funding for public school districts is going to be based on the textbook program, but poverty-based funding of vouchers is going to be based on the free-and-reduced-lunch program?

    • HoosierMommy

      What a surprise!

  • Christopher Pupillo

    Look, Hoosier Republicans will do anything to mask the rise in poverty that has taken place under their rule. right to work resulted in higher unemployment, less income, and increased poverty. They continue to look for any way possible to defund public education in their ongoing effort to privatize the system, worried ore about turning a profit than education Hoosier children.

  • Cindi Pastore

    Meanwhile, this clip is of interest when talking about poverty. One of the findings of the research: Cognitive functioning (of CHILDREN and adults) IS affected by poverty. So, perhaps legislators would want to fund schools who serve high numbers of children in poverty generously? Wouldn’t that be nice?

  • Kurt Thiel

    Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
    “Are there no prisons?”
    “Plenty of prisons…”
    “And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
    “Both very busy, sir…”
    “Those who are badly off must go there.”
    “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

  • wish there was an easy answer

    OK then, what are we doing to solve the whole poverty issue. Seems to me we ought to be spending more resources on teaching good PRENATAL care or how about even more so birth control! Don’t have children until you’re ready to provide proper care in utero. Babies being born with developmental delays from not being properly cared for before they’re even born and when they are born are already at a disadvantage before they even get to school.

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