State combs through confounding free and reduced lunch numbers

The number of Idaho students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies dropped significantly this year.

Or maybe not.

The new numbers are surprising, said Colleen Fillmore, the State Department of Education’s director of child nutrition programs. So the state is asking local officials to doublecheck their arithmetic.

According to the current numbers, about 44 percent of Idaho students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunch this year, down from 47 percent a year ago. That’s a difference of some 9,000 students — if it stands up.

Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is significant, for several reasons. The numbers are widely used as an indicator of student poverty. The numbers are used to determine whether schools are eligible for a variety of grants. And under a bill headed to Gov. Brad Little’s desk, the state would use free and reduced-price lunch rates to define “economically disadvantaged students” — and could ultimately parcel out more state dollars to schools that serve these disadvantaged students.

The SDE has asked school districts and charter schools to verify their numbers by Friday.

“This is not unusual for us,” Fillmore said.

Some of the numbers — posted on the state’s website — are changing in real time.

Originally, Vision Charter School in Caldwell reported an eligibility rate of only 11 percent, a one-year dropoff of 27 percentage points. The school discovered a clerical error Friday, administrator Wendy OldenKamp said. The revised eligibility rate is slightly less than 37 percent, and more or less in line with the previous year’s numbers.

The Emmett School District also found a reporting error, which led to a large discrepancy in the numbers. The district’s eligibility rate should come in at about 50 percent, Superintendent Wayne Rush said Monday. That’s a slight one-year drop from 53 percent.

The Ririe School District originally reported a 16 percent eligibility rate, down 29 percentage points. Superintendent Chad Williams expects the final numbers to come in closer to 40 percent. This would still reflect a decrease, which Williams attributes to the economy.

“We believe we have more parents working this year than in the past,” he said Monday.

Economics can affect free and reduced-price lunch eligibility. From 2010-11 through 2012-13, during the recovery out of the Great Recession, more than half of the state’s students qualified for lunch subsidies.

While the free and reduced-price lunch numbers can indicate household poverty and economic trends, they aren’t a perfect index. The program is still voluntary. Some parents simply decide to pay for lunch, even if they are eligible for a subsidy, Fillmore said. Participation numbers tend to drop in high school — particularly on open campuses, because students might choose to skip the cafeteria to go to lunch with friends.


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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