Some NYC schools get Title I funds despite falling far below poverty cutoff

Students, wearing masks and backpacks, wait in line outside a school. Most are visible from the back only.
Despite falling far below the poverty cutoff. some New York City schools have been receiving federal money meant for mostly low-income schools. (Gabby Jones for Chalkbeat)

A handful of New York City’s more affluent schools have for years been collecting millions in federal dollars meant to support low-income students — even as schools with far higher concentrations of poverty had the funding yanked, a Chalkbeat review of budget records found.

P.S. 10 in Park Slope, where less than a quarter of families are low-income and the PTA raised nearly $1 million in 2019, collected $630,000 this year in federal Title I funds, records show.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Title I money also went to P.S. 34 in Greenpoint, where fewer than 1 in 4 families are low-income, and to P.S. 130 in Windsor Terrace, which recorded a 30% poverty rate last year, according to the education department’s annual demographic snapshot.

All in all, Chalkbeat identified eight schools with poverty rates below 50% this year — and largely for the last decade — that have continued to receive Title I funds each year. Collectively, the schools received $3.1 million in Title I money this year.

Meanwhile, the Dock Street School for STEAM Studies in DUMBO recently lost its Title I money after its poverty rate fell just below 60%. Ditto Brooklyn Collaborative Studies, which has a 60% poverty rate this year, but lost its Title I support.

The reason for the disparities is a little-known quirk in the city education department’s system for calculating Title I eligibility. Normally, schools in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx are supposed to lose eligibility for Title I “School-wide Program” money if they fall below 60% student poverty. (The cutoff in Staten Island is slightly lower to reflect the borough’s lower poverty rate.)

But the group of schools identified by Chalkbeat have been allowed to continue reporting poverty rates that are in some cases nearly two decades old, education department officials acknowledged. 

P.S. 10, for example, is listed as having a “Free Lunch Poverty %” of 69% in the education department’s Title I records for this year. But in the department’s annual demographic snapshot, the school’s most recent poverty rate is 22%.

P.S. 10 PTA co-president Britt Kim noted that the reported PTA income overinflated how much the school raised from families: Only about $309,000 of the revenue that year was from donations, while the rest covered payments for an after-school program, she said.

A former lunch program paves way for funding quirk

The schools were all early adopters of a program that provided free school lunch to all kids in their building, and “were allowed to report their original percent of students who have free and reduced lunch for purposes of receiving continued Title 1 support,” education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said. 

Since the 2017-18 school year, all city schools have been participating in universal free lunch programs.

The schools benefiting from the carve-out represent only a small share of the full pot of Title I school-wide program funds, which spread nearly $500 million across more than 1,200 schools this year.

But critics say the quirk in distributing the federal anti-poverty funds, no matter the size, represents a glaring double standard and undermines the explicit purpose of the funding.

“It’s very upsetting” that money from a finite pool meant to support the city’s poorest schools is “going to schools that don’t come anywhere near meeting the threshold for qualifying,” said Reyhan Mehran, a Brooklyn parent and member of the District 15 Coalition for Equitable Schools.

The carve-out is especially troubling to families at schools that recently lost Title I support, even with poverty rates far higher than some of the schools that have continued receiving it.

At the Dock Street School for STEAM Studies, the loss of roughly $140,000 in Title I money was a big blow for a school where 59% of families are still low-income and the PTA can’t raise enough to offset the loss.

The school lost its technology teacher, said parent Cynthia McKnight, and now it has to “choose between technology, art, science … We wish we had money.”

Meanwhile, P.S. 133, in the same school district, collected $470,000 in school-wide Title I funds this year, despite having a 40% poverty rate and a PTA that raised $760,000 in 2019.

McKnight said she doesn’t begrudge any other schools for trying to tap any available funding — especially in an environment where school budgets are contracting citywide — but wishes the carve-out was available to all schools.

“If there was that loophole,” she said, “I definitely would’ve taken advantage of it.” 

Universal lunch now complicates funding calculations

Title I is the largest source of federal funding for local school districts, tracing back to anti-poverty efforts from President Lyndon Johnson’s administration in the mid-1960s. School districts have some freedom to set their own thresholds for how to distribute the money, though federal law says schools must have a poverty rate of at least 40% to qualify. 

An education department official didn’t explain why several schools with rates below 40% are continuing to receive the funds.

In New York City, the cutoff for qualifying has long hovered right at or near 60% for schools in the four largest boroughs. The citywide poverty rate is 72% and more than 8 in 10 of the city’s public schools have at least a 60% poverty rate.

But how officials calculate school poverty rates can get complicated. For many years, the education department relied on schools to collect student lunch forms to measure poverty. As more districts and schools began participating in universal free lunch programs that rendered school lunch forms obsolete, districts had to find other ways of measuring student poverty. Many districts now automatically match students’ names to state and federal databases of families receiving government benefits.

Education department officials explained the schools covered by the Title I quirk have essentially remained frozen for Title I at the poverty level they reported when they first adopted universal free meals, between 2004 and 2008.

A series of state and federal waivers dating back to the early 2000s allowed the education department to pause the collection of student lunch forms at some schools, Styer added. Those waivers are expiring this year, and the department is “looking at next steps for our schools,” he said.

Education department officials didn’t explain why the poverty rates recorded every year in the agency’s “demographic snapshot” aren’t used for Title I eligibility.

One principal from a school not included in the carve-out, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they understood the impulse of a school leader wanting to retain Title I funds, particularly if their school isn’t far off from the threshold. But “it feels like the overall DOE responsibility towards overall more equitable funding … fell pretty far short there,” the principal added.

Michael Elsen-Rooney is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Michael at melsen-rooney@chalkbeat.org.

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