Where is the story?
October 7, 2011
OPINION By JULIAN CROCKER
Where is the story? The article that appeared in the Cal Coast News this week, entitled “No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”, gave the impression that either the Coast Unified School District was somehow “inflating” the numbers of students who qualify for federal subsidy for meals commonly referred to as “Free or Reduced Price Lunch” in order to receive more federal funding than it is eligible for; or that the Superintendent of Schools for the district is trying to qualify for subsidized meals for his two children who attend district schools.
If either of these inferences were true, then it might have been a story. However, neither is true and some innocent people have been caused unwarranted embarrassment and stress. An adequate review of the facts and some common sense would have shown that there is no story.
First, on the matter of receiving federal funding to assist low income students. Since the mid-60’s the federal government has provided additional funding for public and private schools that is targeted to meet the educational needs of students from low-income families. The purpose of the money is to assist school districts to enhance the education for these students as one means of mitigating the debilitating effects of poverty on their lives and future. School districts apply for these funds based on the number of students whose gross family income for 2011-2012 is $41,348 or lower for a family of four. Obviously, it is in our students’ best interests if all students who qualify are reported and funded. So, yes, a district should try to maximize the federal funding for which it qualifies.
The use of the federal Free and Reduced Price Eligibility information is the most common method of identifying students who qualify for additional educational funding. All school districts, as well as private schools, in our county use this method and have been doing so for a number of years. This practice is subject to the annual independent audit reviews for both the school food service program and the school district budget as well as federal compliance reviews. The practice has never been questioned since it conforms to federal guidelines.
In order to identify all qualified students, most districts encourage all families to complete the form, not just those who may qualify. This process is more efficient and also lessens the obvious risk of embarrassing students by having only a selected group complete the form. The district reviews the forms to determine how many children qualify based on the income criteria and then notifies the parents. That is exactly the process used by the Coast Unified School District and all local school districts for the sole purpose of insuring that as many students who are entitled to additional funding and services can receive them. Last year, the district received $89,000 in federal funds based on this process. So what is the story…“District Follows Authorized Practice”?
Second, the implication in the story is that the Superintendent was attempting to qualify for Free and Reduced Price Lunch for his own children. Based on the district’s request of all parents, the Superintendent submitted the form as requested. The family clearly did not qualify and their form was discarded just as it, and many others, have been each year. Over half of the students in the district do qualify.
This implication also fails the common sense test. Why would the Superintendent of Schools in a small tightly knit school district where his salary is public knowledge think his children could qualify for a “free lunch”? Answer: he didn’t. So, what is the story? “Superintendent Follows the Rules”?
Unfortunately, a family, including young children, has been needlessly subjected to public humiliation and invasion of privacy (the forms include social security numbers) due to an apparent desire to create a flashy story where none existed. I would give the writer high marks for a catchy headline, but an F for homework and accuracy.
Julian Crocker is the San Luis Obispo County Superintendent of Schools.