When Baltimore’s public school district joined a universal free lunch program three years ago, the city celebrated. Now every student in the district, regardless of income, could get healthy, wholesome food each day, courtesy of federal taxpayers.
But in an unintended consequence, the move has cost some of the city’s high-poverty schools hundreds of thousands of dollars in other federal funding — losses that have led principals to cut staff and programs from some of the buildings that need them most.
The reason: To join the free lunch program, the district was required to change the way it counts poor students and use a system that tends to undercount children from immigrant families.
Schools with the largest immigrant populations have been among the hardest hit.
Patterson Park Public Charter School in East Baltimore has lost roughly $40,000 in federal Title I funding since the district joined the free lunch program in 2015. While the new system has made the school look richer on paper, Principal Chad Kramer says, the losses have forced him to cut staff, including a reading specialist.
“It’s not that we got wealthier,” he said. “It’s just we’re no longer being counted.”
Some state lawmakers are looking for a fix. The State Board of Education is working on a uniform method for determining school poverty rates.
The change does not affect the total the city school system receives in Title I funding. But it has changed the amounts allocated to individual schools, effectively steering money away from schools with more immigrant families and toward other poor schools.
District officials say they’ve been trying to make up for those discrepancies, but a solution remains elusive.
“Neither the federal government nor the state has given any guidance on how to handle” the consequences for schools that serve large immigrant populations, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the district’s chief of staff. “There’s been some discussion of it as a problem, but they have not led the way in terms of what to do about it.”
Historically, Baltimore and other school districts used eligibility for free and reduced-price meals as a proxy for poverty. If a student qualified for that assistance, the student was poor.
To be counted now, the family must participate in federal public assistance programs, such as food stamps. But students from immigrant families — including undocumented children, whom public schools are required by law to educate — are less likely to qualify for those programs, or even to apply.
The new system also sets a higher threshold for a family’s poverty level, akin to counting only those students who previously qualified for free meals, but not those who qualified for reduced-price meals.
The district uses poverty rates to allocate Title I funding. The fewer poor kids counted, the less money a school receives.
The stakes are high: Designation as a high-poverty Title I school can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
Kramer worries that if the immigrant population at Patterson Park continues to grow, the school might stop qualifying for Title I status altogether.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture describes the universal free lunch program, called the Community Eligibility Provision, as “a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas.” It relieves parents of the burden of filling out the forms required for free and reduced-price meals, and reduces the stigma associated with getting a free lunch in schools where not all students receive such assistance.
More than 20,700 schools nationwide participated in the program last year. For Baltimore, joining meant a huge increase in the number of free meals served, and millions of dollars more in federal funding for the district as a whole.
The new method of counting poor families has made the district as a whole seem wealthier, Perkins-Cohen said. The district poverty rate has fallen roughly 20 percent since the 2014-15 school year, district data shows. At schools with larger percentages of English learners, the drop has been steeper.
Being a Title I school means more than extra federal funding. The designation allows schools to qualify for discounted field trips. And if teachers work in a high-poverty school for more than five years, they become eligible for student loan forgiveness.
Now some worry that the funding is in jeopardy.
“We’re reaching that cliff really quickly,” said Najib Jammal, principal of Lakeland Elementary/Middle School. “As our immigrant population increases, we will potentially lose all Title I funding.”
More than 80 percent of Lakeland students were identified as poor in the 2014-15 school year. That’s dropped to 41 percent this year. The Title I cutoff this year was 40 percent.
As a result of the drop, Lakeland lost access this year to the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which gives high-poverty elementary schools money to serve healthy snacks during the school day.
More than a quarter of Lakeland’s students are English learners, which is how the district estimates its immigrant population. Schools do not ask families for proof of citizenship. Many of these students are themselves U.S. citizens, but come from households where family members have mixed immigration status.
Mark Gaither, principal at Wolfe Street Academy, said the district needs a better way to count poverty, in part because the children of immigrants are the fastest growing segment of a district struggling to retain students.
“We’re smart enough to figure out a way that all kids can eat for free and then go up to classrooms that are properly funded,” he said. “It can’t be an either-or.”
Some lawmakers say they are working on solutions.
State Sen. Bill Fergson said the district should have more ways that students could be identified as poor, such as enrollment in the goverment-funded Child Health Insurance Program.
“CHIP and Medicaid enrollment is likely a much more accurate representation of poverty,” the Baltimore Democrat said.
State Del. Brooke Lierman, another Baltimore Democrat, said the schools could multiply the poverty rate by 1.6, in recognition that the current method misses some students.
Perkins-Cohen points out that that method would leave many city schools with poverty rates above 100 percent, making it difficult to identify which schools have the greatest needs.
A USDA spokesperson provided a statement saying the agency “recognizes that potential changes to within-district funding allocations are a concern to some local officials” when considering the free meal program. The federal government released guidance on alternative ways to allocate Title I dollars under the Community Eligibility Provision, though it does not specifically address the potential undercounting of students from immigrant families.
“Some States have developed their own policies to address State and local funding issues, working to find solutions for funding streams that have historically relied on household application data,” the statement read.
New York also provides free meals to all students. But the city still urges parents to submit income forms, schools spokesman Michael Aciman said, “because it is the most accurate and effective way to determine a family’s Title I eligibility.”
Baltimore has taken steps to increase support for schools at which immigrant children are likely being undercounted. Under a revised funding formula, the district will send extra money to schools not only for each student whose family receives federal assistance, but also for those who test at the lowest levels of English proficiency. The change takes effect next school year.
But some say it isn’t enough.
Hampstead Hill Academy qualified for Title I throughout Principal Matt Hornbeck’s 15-year tenure until this year. Without Title I, his school is out roughly a quarter of a million dollars and three teaching positions.
A district analysis shows his student population has been shifting toward the middle class and the new system did not change the outcome.
Hornbeck said the district’s analysis is flawed. Had the large population of students from immigrant families at Hampstead Hill been counted the old way, he said, he believes his school’s poverty rate would be higher.
He said the current system feels like a “slap,” particularly as the Trump administration cracks down on illegal immigration.
“You’re sort of like, ‘Really?’” Hornbeck said. “This is the year you want to undercount immigrant kids?”