Districts push to collect income data to support at-risk students

Free and reduced-priced meal applications and income data are a linchpin when it comes to school district budgets. 

These applications and data – which are about so much more than free and reduced-priced meals – impact funding for educational supports that range from staffing to books to after-school programs. Those supports are geared toward helping the state’s most economically disadvantaged students achieve academic success.

And right now, it’s crunch time for districts to get that data collected. In fact, getting parents to fill out those applications is perhaps more critical and daunting than ever for two reasons. 

First, the Legislature’s all-day kindergarten bill that was passed this March included new language that partly ties early literacy funding from the state to a school’s percentage of economically disadvantaged students. That new language sent districts scrambling to collect data on their families’ income levels because for the past two school years that data had not been collected because of the pandemic. 

Usually, families are required to apply for free and reduced-priced meals, unless they are enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho and automatically qualify. Those applications help determine income levels, which impact whether or how much state and federal money will pour into a given district. 

During the past two school years, the USDA has waived the application process and allowed free meals for all students due to hardships related to COVID-19. Now, that waiver period is over. 

That brings us to reason No. 2 for why the applications might now be more important than ever: families may not be accustomed to or aware of the application requirement after a two-year hiatus. If families don’t fill out the forms, not only would their learners have to pay full price for school meals, but a slew of other educational programs, staff, and resources stand to be impacted as well. 

“We’re in kind of an extraordinary situation,” said Greg Wilson, the chief communications officer for West Ada School District. “What West Ada’s trying to do is really encourage people to apply and emphasize that it’s not just about free and reduced lunch, but it has broader implications.”

Wilson said they’re doing what they can to spread the word about the applications to families via newsletters and social media as well as via flyers and A-frame signs that will be posted and placed at school events. The district is also setting up computers at registrations and back-to-school nights so families can fill out the application forms (which will be available in nine different languages) on site.

If districts don’t get the data they need, funding in a number of areas could be at stake.

The financial ripples of district income data

Data on economically disadvantaged students determines whether or how much state and federal money will land in a district’s coffers for an array of different programs and needs which, according to Jonathan Balls, the director of business operations for the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District, could include:

  • helping at-risk students meet learning standards and achieve proficiency on state assessments
  • supporting effective instruction and funding professional development
  • providing special education support
  • receiving reimbursement for schoolwide internet access
  • paying salaries for paraprofessionals

Balls said the Pocatello/Chubbuck district usually has about 43 to 44% of its students qualify for subsidized meals. At this point, only 27.79% are qualified, and that’s primarily due to immediate qualification through the SNAP program rather than through applications.

The free and reduced-priced meal applications also play into whether a school or district gets a Title I designation, which allows funding for interventions, school supplies, educational support, Title I teachers, paraprofessionals, and more, according to Heidi Rahn, the federal programs director for Nampa School District. 

“For us, it’s really crucial that we get forms back,” she said, adding that 55 to 60% of her district’s students usually qualify for subsidized meals. 

According to the State Department of Education, the federal government will take a snapshot of application and income data in mid-November to determine a school’s Title I eligibility, which means it will be especially important for schools to have their data collected by then.

The subsidized meal applications and income surveys also affect funds for Title II and Title IV, which provides funds for needs such as “well-rounded education, safe and healthy schools, and integrated technology” according to Rahn. The Nampa School District also uses those funds for its community resource centers, where students and families can access resources to meet their basic needs, like clothing, food, household goods or help with job readiness or housing applications. That money also helps support homeless and migrant students.

And this year, new wording in March legislation means data on economically disadvantaged students will also impact early literacy funding from the state. 

How subsidized meal applications and income surveys affect early literacy funding

The state literacy money is important because it goes toward funding whatever districts see as its best use, which could include new all-day kindergarten teachers, after-school programs or classroom materials. Many districts will be counting on the funds in the spend-first, get-reimbursed-later system they often operate in. 

Half of those early literacy dollars are doled out based on K-3 enrollment and most likely won’t be distributed until second semester, according to Marilyn Whitney, a spokesperson for the State Department of Education. That’s because enrollment won’t be calculated until the first Friday in November, and it takes some time for districts to review and correct data, Whitney said. 

That means the other half of the literacy money, which can be distributed in the first semester, will be especially important to get out to districts. But there’s a catch.

The allocation of that half of the money is based on test results (the number of K-3 students who progress “a full level” from year to year or are proficient on the statewide reading assessment) and on the number of economically disadvantaged students a district claims who progressed or were proficient (those students will be weighted as 1.75 in terms of fund distribution). The latter data comes from free and reduced-priced meal applications and income surveys. 

Schools will bear administrative burdens as they advertise the applications and surveys, keep tallies, and even make personal phone calls to parents to get the data collected. But the literacy funding tie-in also means that districts with high-performing, disadvantaged students stand to get more federal dollars. 

“In Nampa, that will help us,” Rahn said, adding that it is a Title I district, which means every school in that district qualifies for Title I. To qualify for Title I, at least 35% of a school’s children must be from low-income families.

Parents who would like to fill out an application for subsidized meals or complete an income survey should contact their student’s school district. Go here for a list of Idaho districts and links to their websites, where their contact information will be listed. More information on income eligibility guidelines for free and reduced meals can be found here.

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro

Carly Flandro reports from her hometown of Pocatello. Prior to joining EdNews, she taught English at Century High and was a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. She has won state and regional journalism awards, and her work has appeared in newspapers throughout the West. Flandro has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and Spanish from the University of Montana, and a master’s degree in English from Idaho State University. You can email her at [email protected] or call or text her at (208) 317-4287.

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