free lunch

New York City unveils universal free lunch in time for the first day of school

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

After years of lobbying from City Council members and school nutrition advocates, New York City will offer free lunch to all public school students regardless of their families’ income — a change the city expects will result in fewer students missing out on lunch.

The new program — called Free School Lunch for All — will take effect in time for the first day of school on Thursday and will mean that an additional 200,000 students are now eligible for free lunch. It marks the end of a rift between Mayor Bill de Blasio and allies on the City Council who have urged him to enact his campaign promise to make lunch free for all students.

Roughly 780,000 students are currently eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because their household income falls below a certain threshold — more than 70 percent of the city’s student population, advocates say. But families must first fill out paperwork and students must overcome the lunchroom stigma attached to free meals, which discourages some from applying. About one-third of eligible students do not participate, according to advocates.

The de Blasio administration has slowly expanded access to free meals: The city began a pilot program offering free lunch to middle school students in 2014, and currently offers free breakfast at every school.

“This is about equity,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a press conference Wednesday, where she was joined by city council leaders, union officials, and advocates. “There is a basic level of investment that every New Yorker deserves.”

Before the announcement, the city had already allocated additional funding that would have ensured roughly 75 percent of the city’s students were enrolled at schools that offered free lunch regardless of income, according to Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, up from 30 percent last school year.

Under the old program, students had to identify themselves as free-lunch recipients, creating a clear distinction in school cafeterias between students who could afford the $1.75 school lunches and those who couldn’t.

Liz Accles, who has long advocated for universal school lunch as executive director of Community Food Advocates, said the new policy would help eliminate that stigma.

“We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program — not just in New York City, but nationally — that has divided children by income,” she said. “This is a new day.”

The Obama administration made a significant push to improve school lunches, and some urban districts — including Detroit and Boston — have rolled out free meals regardless of income. But until now, de Blasio has balked at expanding the lunch program to include all students.

The state recently launched a new system for identifying free-lunch eligible students based on their families’ participation in other government programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps. The new system identified more eligible students, which brought more federal money into the city to help fund an expanded lunch program.

Education officials said the higher reimbursements would cover the full cost of the meals themselves, but the city may have to spend more on food workers.

“We will know final costs when we actually see how many kids actually take advantage of this program,” the education department’s Rose said in an interview, noting that roughly 6 percent more students ate lunch in middle school after the city made it universal.

In the past, Chancellor Fariña has said her “major fear” with offering universal free lunch is that certain high-poverty schools might receive less federal Title I money, since the funding levels are based on how many students qualify for subsidized lunch.

Education officials could not say for sure Wednesday whether moving to a universal system would affect any school’s Title I funding. However, they said schools would continue asking families to fill out paperwork stating their income, even though it will no longer be necessary for students to receive free lunch. The free-lunch-for-all pilot program in middle schools did not have a big impact on any school’s Title I funding, they added.

Advocates have been frustrated with the city’s incremental moves toward universal free lunch. Earlier this year, they criticized Fariña for telling principals to give students free lunch if they asked for it — missing the point that students often don’t ask because they feel embarrassed.

“No child should go hungry in our schools,” said Public Advocate Letitia James, who has previously called on the city to expand free lunch. “This has been a long fight.”

Mixed messages

Is the Board of Regents hostile to charter schools? Depends upon whom you ask.

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Regent Collins and Regent Johnson engage in a discussion after a Board of Regents meeting.

When the Board of Regents took the unprecedented step of rejecting two new charter schools last week, it sent shudders through the charter school sector.

Even before the meeting last Monday, the Regents had been making charters “nervous,” said Andrea Rogers, the New York State Director for the Northeast Charter Schools Network. The rejections only heightened the anxiety.

“I think these denials skyrocketed the issue to the front of people’s minds,” she said.  

And yet, during the same meeting, the board praised and signed off on the opening of five other charter schools, which brings the number of new schools approved this year to more than any year since 2013.

The meeting was emblematic of the mixed signals that this Board of Regents have been sending over the last few months, feeding different interpretations among both those who advocate for charter schools and those who champion traditional schools

The board’s willingness to criticize and question charters have many believing the Regents are, at best, skeptics and, at worst, opposed to the publicly funded, privately run schools that they authorize and oversee.

At the same time, the Regents have not been without praise for charters, and some charters say they have appreciated the support of the body and the state’s support staff.

Chancellor Betty Rosa said the Regents’ decisions are evidence of nuance, not rigid ideology or partisanship.

“I think there’s too many times when people want to simply say ‘you’re for’ or ‘you’re against.’ It’s so much more complicated than that,” Rosa told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday. “To me, if it’s a wonderful opportunity for kids — you got me. If it’s not, I’m probably going to be your worst enemy.”

As an authorizer, the Board of Regents has the power to approve new schools and decide which of its 87 schools should remain open. In addition to deciding the fate of individual schools, the board is rethinking how it evaluates all of its schools   and whether they should take a closer look at measures like surveys or chronic absenteeism.

With several new members and a relatively new leader, the Regents’ actions have been under particular scrutiny for signs of partisanship. Some have seized on recent events, such as critical statements made by some Regents as charter schools have come before the board for approval or renewal.

One Regent suggested that charter schools achieve high test scores by pushing out students; another suggested a charter school in Brooklyn is contributing to segregation.

Rosa has fiercely opposed a proposal that would allow some charter schools to certify their own teachers, calling the idea  “insulting.” The board also rejected a batch of Success Academy renewals, arguing that their authorizer attempted to renew the high-performing but controversial charter schools too soon. (The move had little practical effect, since their authorizer, SUNY, can override the board’s decision.)

Rosa said the sum of these decisions does not mean either she or the board is anti-charter. Her opposition to the teacher certification proposal had nothing to do with the source of the proposal — a charter authorizer — but because, she said, she believes the idea is an affront to the teaching profession and will allow unqualified teachers to enter classrooms.

The Success Academy renewals, she said, were returned based on legal requirements — and were not an appraisal of the charter network.

But taken together, observers of different educational ideologies have concluded that the board is more likely to probe problems with charter schools than in the past.

“It is quite a change from a couple years ago, and it does show greater misgivings about charter schools than what we saw under the board as it was previously constructed,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. (Lowry said he appreciates that the board is paying more attention to how charter schools will affect the funding of surrounding school districts.)

The state’s teachers union has picked up on the change and praised the board for providing more oversight of charter schools, while calling on them to do more.

“The Regents, at this point, are providing much overdue scrutiny of the charter sector,” said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn. “We believe that the Regents and the state education department need to do more, but this is a good step.”

Charter school advocates agree, seeing the Board of Regents’ actions as worrying. Since the board’s philosophy is hard to pin down, schools are starting to wonder if they can switch authorizers, Rogers said.

Yet there are signs that charters’ fear are based on conclusions that are far too sweeping. As the board rejected two schools outside of New York City, they also lauded applications for schools opening in the city a fact that may suggest differences in how the Regents assess schools in different areas of the state.

Regent Christine Cea welcomed a new school in Staten Island, saying she is “totally in favor of it.” Rosa expressed excitement about a new KIPP school in the Bronx, saying the community has “tremendous support” for its opening.

Rosa said Regents are more thoughtful and involved in reviewing schools now. She suggested that there are educational innovations that can be learned from charter schools, but also offered some critiques. At the top of her list, she worries that charter schools are not well-equipped to serve students with the most severe disabilities.

Several schools that are currently authorized by the board expressed their appreciation for the Board of Regents and those in the state education department’s charter school office who provide technical assistance to schools and create charter school recommendations for the board.

“On our quest to better serve scholars with learning differences, we have found no better ally,” said Eric Tucker, who is a co-founder of Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School. “Through technical assistance and oversight, the Regents push public schools like ours to continually improve to better serve the needs of all students, all days.”

Still, said Bob Bellafiore, an education consultant who works with charter schools, several Regents come from district school backgrounds, and so their default attitude is to question charter schools and support the traditional school model.

“They’re much more district school system people,” Bellafiore said.

What's Your Education Story?

Tips for teaching poetry in a women’s prison. ‘Remember, you are not allowed to hug anyone.’

PHOTO: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr CC
Inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison.

Adam Henze was one of seven educators who participated in a story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media and the Indianapolis Public Library on Sept. 5. Every teacher shared stories about their challenges and triumphs in Circle City classrooms.

A poet and educator, Henze read a poem about a day in his life as a poetry instructor at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Henze recounts the painful struggle to reconcile his experiences with the crimes for which his students were serving time — some life sentences for murder

It’s a story full of darkness, but it also offers hope that, as Henze said, “we are the sum of the things that we have done, but we’re also the sum of the things that we have yet to do.”

Check out the video below to hear Henze’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students and parents here.