As students get ready to come back to school in Everett and Revere for a new school year in the coming weeks, administrators in both districts are nervously pacing over next year due to a change in the way low-income students are counted – a count that is critical for funding and families in urban school districts.
Under the guidance of the federal government, states have been steered towards going to Direct Certification and calling their low-income students ‘economically disadvantaged.’ Instead of self-reporting their income on a form sent home in order to secure free or reduced lunch, students would not qualify for such services unless already enrolled in any government welfare social service. In addition, a district’s low-income student population, which affects grants and state funding formulas, is based upon the number of low-income students, or economically disadvantaged.
“We will be going to Direct Certification in the 2016-2017 school year,” said Jacqueline Reis, a spokesperson for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). “That’s what we’re doing at this point. Everyone’s budget will be reduced by about one-third…For the `16-`17 school year, the Legislature will have to figure out how it will adjust the Chapter 70 formula to accommodate the free and reduced lunch changes.”
Under the new system, which is slated to take effect in the 2016-2017 school year, Everett would be the hardest hit in the state, going down in economically disadvantaged students by 47.7 percent (from 5,506 students to 2,882 students).
In Revere, a similar story unfolds, where that district goes from 82.2 percent of students with what they define as ‘high needs’ to 57.1 percent with ‘high needs.’
“This came up last spring and then kind of died out and I remember that Everett stood to lose several million dollars with the change,” he said. “We have to get the Legislature onto this and soon. Communities like ours cannot take that kind of hit. You just can’t make a $2 or $3 million cut and expect us not to be devastated. We just have to wait and see what the Legislature will do.”
The program was introduced in the name of efficiency.
Many believed that with Direct Certification – which only requires that one prove they already are participating in a defined government welfare program – paperwork would be lessened at the district level. Many districts complained that they were creating entire jobs just to process school lunch forms, taking away resources from the classroom. However, one of the problems for communities like Everett and Revere is that not everyone who qualifies for free and reduced lunch – and who needs the service – also qualifies or takes advantage of government welfare programs.
Revere Supt. Dianne Kelly said that is really the case for her district, and she said many students would fall between the cracks.
“In Revere, we have a lot of proud parents who, despite their difficulties, choose not to participate in social service programs,” she said. “These are the people who will lose out and their families will be punished by this. Many will no longer qualify for free and reduced lunch and the kids do need it…If they’re not on a social service program already, they would not qualify any longer where they did previously.”
She said their figures show that the true effect would be going from 77 percent to 37 percent – a major change in the counts used to determine federal grants and state funding.
“Obviously, if we went from 77 percent low income to 37 percent economically disadvantaged, our federal grants would be reduced to nothing and we couldn’t run our district,” she said. “The state did take a step back and look at this because they realized it wasn’t a good plan for many of us…Having these new counts could also really affect our Chapter 70 state funding as well, due to how the construct the formulas.”
Working with the Legislature is just what the DESE hopes will save the situation, and they said they believe the matter will be resolved.
“We are not looking to cut districts’ free and reduced lunch funding by one-third,” said Reis. “We have every reason to believe the Legislature will address this and that they understand the issue. We believe they will work with this to make sure the districts get extra money in their Chapter 70 funding to make up for the change…I don’t think anyone should be concerned they will lose one-third of the money.”