Free lunch for education policy makers and researchers


The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), like No Child Left Behind before it, requires states to report information on the academic achievement of students in each of their schools, both overall and for various subgroups of students. A subgroup of particular interest to policymakers and researchers is economically disadvantaged students, who, on average, score much lower on standardized tests than their higher-income peers.

Economically disadvantaged students have historically been identified as those that participate in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches (FRL) to students from low-income families, defined as those earning below 185 percent of the federal poverty line (currently $44,863 for a family of four).

The use of FRL for policy and research purposes is quickly unravelling, due in large part to policy changes enacted by Congress in 2010 that expand “community eligibility,” which allows schools with at least 40 percent of students identified as eligible for FRL to provide free lunches to all of their students and eliminate paper applications going forward. As a result, many schools will be unable to report student achievement for their FRL students.

Successful ESSA implementation will require the federal government to take the lead, through guidance and regulations, in suggesting feasible and uniform ways for schools and districts to meet their obligation to report the test performance of their economically disadvantaged students. New measures could include existing data on participation in means-tested programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, or direct measures of socioeconomic status collected by states through new links between administrative data systems.


FRL participation has always been a crude proxy for family income for a number of reasons. Despite sometimes being called FRL eligibility, it does not capture eligible families that do not participate. As a result, two schools could serve similar populations of families in terms of income but have different FRL rates because one makes greater efforts to sign up eligible families. Additionally, FRL is a very coarse measure in that students in each of three categories (free, reduced, and non-participating) can vary widely in terms of their parents’ incomes.

These changes are undeniably good for expanding kids’ access to free school lunches. But they may mark the beginning of the end of FRL’s moonlighting for researchers and policymakers as a socioeconomic indicator. Figure 1 shows how FRL participation rates (measured with data from two separate government agencies) have diverged from Census data on the percentage of children living in families below 200 percent of the poverty threshold (chosen because it is similar to the 185 percent FRL cutoff)

Actual poverty measures fall and rise with the state of the economy, but FRL participation has increased almost every year for more than 30 years. This is particularly noticeable in recent years, when the poverty-based measure fell but FRL participation continued to rise as the 2010 changes were implemented. The most recent data indicate that there are substantially more kids eligible for a program limited to 185 percent of the poverty line than there are kids who live in families below 200 percent of the poverty threshold—a difference that likely results in large part from the program’s community eligibility provisions.

The federal government has a responsibility to take the lead, through guidance and regulations, in suggesting feasible and uniform ways for schools and districts to meet their obligation to report the test performance of their economically disadvantaged students. One set of possible measures include participation in means-tested programs such as welfare, food stamps, and programs for homeless and foster youth. These data are already being used by many school systems for FRL direct certification, and are obtained through links to administrative databases.

More direct measures of socioeconomic status could also be collected by states through their longitudinal data systems. Family incomes could be obtained from state administrative records, such as unemployment insurance systems. More ambitiously, Congress could authorize the Internal Revenue Service to work with states to link their student-level data to family income data that would identify disadvantaged students, but be sufficiently coarse to protect privacy.

FRL participation data have long been put to research and policy uses for which they are ill-suited. But FRL status is now headed toward its demise as a useful tool for research and policy. Policymakers and researchers need to move quickly to identify new measures of family background or they will soon find themselves unable to answer important questions and comply with federal education laws.

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