Childhood poverty bothers ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf: he’s worried the little waifs might be ripping him off:
In New Jersey and across the nation, the number of students living in poverty is determined by how many of them qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, a federal program run by the Department of Agriculture. But the count is not just about the federally subsidized meals – schools with poor students in the lunch program receive up to 57 percent more state aid than their peers.
Citing growing concerns with the program’s susceptibility to fraud and error, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is calling for a governor-appointed task force to study whether there’s “an alternative way to measure New Jersey’s at-risk student population.” The move has the potential to shift where the money goes in the state school system, rekindling New Jersey’s long debate over school funding for needy children.
“It is hardly a well kept secret that (free and reduced lunch counts) are inaccurate and even at times fraudulent,” Cerf said in an e-mail to The Star-Ledger Saturday. “We owe it to school districts and taxpayers alike to explore whether there are better ways to identify disadvantaged children.”
See, something horrible happens when these little grifters or their schools fake the poverty level: they get more money for education! And then the state might have to stop giving tax gifts to millionaires and corporations! Can you imagine?!
But wait – the long con is even worse than that:
The report, however, does not stop with a call to re-evaluate how poor students are counted.
Cerf also challenges the long-held assumption that poverty puts students at a disadvantage in the classroom.
His report recommends the state study “whether a poor student should be presumed to be educationally at-risk, or whether there is a more precise way to define at-risk students.”
It is, of course, totally wacko to think that a kid in poverty might have challenges that a kid with some economic stability in her life does not. That near perfect correlation between test scores and poverty is obviously a coincidence. It’s not like it’s been proven over and over and over and over…
Thank goodness we have folks like Amanda Ripley, who has “…been to Finland, Korea and Poland working on this book, and I have the luxury of spending hours reading PISA results.” She, like the ACTING Commissioner, can spend her days worrying that we might be overestimating poverty, which is a nice way to “fix” poverty without actually doing a damn thing.
Of course, we could always ask an expert about this:
The school funding issue aside, the state should be examining fraud in the lunch program, some education experts say, but eliminating it as a measure of poverty goes too far.
“It ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got,” said Bruce Baker, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Graduate School of Education.
A recent analysis by the state auditor estimated that up to 37 percent of participants in the federally administered free and reduced-lunch program are fraudulently enrolled. Cerf cites that finding, along with reports by The Star-Ledger last year that Elizabeth’s school board president and two spouses of district employees allegedly falsified their income so their children could receive meals, as proof of the need for a change.
“There is a perverse incentive to sign up these kids and it’s a big conflict of interest,” state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), a member of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, argued recently. “I think it’s a statewide problem and Elizabeth is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Baker said qualification for free and reduced-price lunch is a good indicator of which students deserve additional state and federal aid because it measures students’ backgrounds. Some states use Census data to measure student poverty, but it’s not accurate, Baker said. Others don’t consider poverty at all in school funding.
“Numbers of books in a home or a parent’s education level might be better ways to determine which students are at the greatest risk, but the cost of developing and updating such a complex index would be extremely burdensome,” he said. “Is the system so susceptible to fraud that it’s no longer a useful index? No.
“As it stands, free and reduced lunch is highly predictive of student outcomes,” Baker added. “Plus, it’s something you can audit, and we should do more of that.”
I agree. And, while we’re at it, maybe we should audit corporations and find out why so many aren’t paying any taxes. Even though I’m sure it won’t yield nearly as much cash as going after school lunches…