For the first time this fall, students in Memphis and Nashville won’t have to supply information about their family’s income to get free lunch at school. The move is meant to ensure that poor students get the nutrition they need — but bureaucratic rules mean it could could also cost schools federal funding.

It depends on how many parents return a form being sent home to parents this month asking for income information. A shift in how districts account for how many low-income students it has could potentially impact how much funding districts receive for crucial services funded by federal grants.  If too many parents don’t turn in their income information to schools, it will appear that the number of low-income students have dropped, and districts will get less money.

“Parents need to know that filling out this survey will determine how much Title I dollars the school will receive,” said Beverly Davis, the PTA president at Whitehaven High School. Davis plans to discuss the form at this month’s PTA meeting, because she said that parents did not know why they should return the form.  “If they don’t fill it out, I’m concerned it may come back to bite us.”
A small but significant portion of Shelby County Schools' revenue is from federal grants like Title I.
For the 2014-15 school year, more than $193 million, a small but significant portion, of Shelby County Schools’ revenue is from federal grants like Title I.
For years, school systems across Tennessee used the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch as a proxy for the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. That number informs the amount of federal dollars available for a range of services geared at boosting traditionally disadvantaged students’ test scores, from after school tutoring and textbooks to professional development for teachers.

But this year, Shelby County Schools, Millington Schools, and Metro Nashville Public Schools are participating in a new federal program that supplies all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, with free meals. That program, part of the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act, will ensure more kids get nutritional meals, increase revenue from the United States Department of Agriculture, and speed up lunch lines.

It will also eliminate the need for students to apply for free and reduced meals. So school systems implementing the new program are  now telling the federal government how many low-income students they have with information they plan to collect via surveys sent to every public school family. The survey asks the number of people in a household and their income level, the same questions families enrolling in Free and Reduced Lunch programs were always asked (you can see the new form here).

Now that there’s not an incentive –free food for their children –for answering how much money parents make, administrators worry that parents will consider the question an invasion of privacy, and not answer it. That could mean less money for already financially-struggling districts.

Portia Patterson, a parent of a daughter in Shelby County Schools said she does bristle at questions about income — but that doesn’t stop her from answering them if there’s a need. She remembers filling out her daughter’s application for free and reduced lunch last year.

“I was on food stamps at the time, and I remember (the form) asking if I received them,” Patterson said.  “I don’t feel like they should ask those kind of questions and I would rather not have to answer them.  But I did so that my daughter could have lunch at school.”

And many parents don’t know the importance of the form, increasing its chances of getting lost in the shuffle.

“No one explained to them what it was for,” Davis said after the forms were passed out during registration day last week.  “I haven’t filled out the survey, but I know it asks how many people are in the household and how much does a family earn.”

Some of the grants that hinge upon the number of low-income students are Title I grants, which go mainly to programs that help low-income students learn math and reading, and IDEA grants, which go to services for students with disabilities. This year, Shelby County Schools is expected to receive more than $193 million in federal grants, or about 16 percent of its total budget.

The federal government allows school districts to collect poverty data for funding purposes in a variety of ways besides free and reduced lunch enrollment, including the child poverty rate from the U.S. Census Bureau (also available through FEBP); free and reduced-price lunch enrollment; TANF data; Medicaid data; or a combination of any of the four. Most states use free and reduced lunch price enrollment data, said Claire McCann, an education policy researcher at the New America Foundation, because it tends to account for the largest number of students.

To qualify for most federal poverty programs, like TANF or Medicaid, households must make 130 percent or less of the federal poverty rate. To get reduced lunch prices, families can make 185 percent of the federal poverty rate or less.

Before districts in Tennessee signed on to the Community Eligibility Provision, Deputy Education Commissioner Kathleen Airhart and Rasheeda Washington, Airhart’s Chief of Staff, criss-crossed the state to explain the potential impacts of offering free meals to all students. Airhart and Washington are avid supporters of the Community Eligibility Provision, and both said they believe that the program will boost childhood nutrition in Tennessee. But, their boosterism came with an advisory.

“Rasheeda and I went across the state and cautioned [district leaders] to think about [federal funding] before the decision to move to CEP,” Airhart said. “If they did this, they wanted to be fully aware it could impact federal dollars if they were not able to collect forms from parents.”

Washington and Airhart recommended schools send home letters explaining the importance of returning the surveys, and describing some of federal funds’ specific uses at their schools. The state recommended using parent surveys to collect data on economic status after reviewing best practices of states that have already implemented CEP, Airhart said.

In Shelby County Schools, parents received the forms when they enrolled their child in school. In Metro Nashville, forms will be sent home August 19, and then expected back August 20. The district originally planned to send the forms home the first day of school, but did not want them to get lost in the shuffle of school supply lists and other papers.