A school’s poverty rate determines everything from funding allocations and staffing to free buses for field trips and up to $14,000 in federal loan forgiveness for individual teachers. Poverty rates are used for accountability systems and to compare school and district performance. Poverty rates even determine which schools receive fresh fruits and vegetables from the federal government. With so much riding on the poverty rate, the data has to be trusted and sound.
But poor children in Baltimore City are being undercounted. This is a systemic problem put in place four years ago. That was the year we stopped collecting lunch applications, used for decades to set poverty rates. The proxy for poverty is now a flawed measure that counts only those families who receive public assistance like SNAP or food stamps. Decades of longitudinal poverty data have been wiped out since city schools stopped collecting lunch applications, and our poverty data is no longer directly comparable with other counties in Maryland or other districts around the country. In fact, our current method of judging poverty makes it appear that Montgomery County, with a median household income of $103,178, has more concentrated poverty than Baltimore City (median household income: $46,641).
The problem is much worse at the 20 or so city schools serving significant numbers of immigrant students. The Trump administration’s proposal to close the door on immigrants seeking citizenship if they have previously received public assistance makes a bad situation even worse. Non-citizen immigrant families do not apply for public assistance, for which they are eligible, at anywhere near the rate of their citizen peers. For several decades, the school where I serve as the principal had a 60-80 percent poverty rate. Now our poverty rate is reported at 24 percent. Due to improved programming and student performance, we have attracted more middle class families to our school, but a number that low is simply impossible.
There are two problems this presents. First: City schools looks a lot richer. This problem has largely been resolved in the short term as Baltimore City Public Schools is being held harmless at levels based on previous, much higher poverty rates and enrollment figures. Federal and state money is still coming in even though poverty rates, based on wildly inaccurate data, have plummeted. The second problem is that individual schools serving significant numbers of children from immigrant families look a lot richer. That problem is ongoing and is crushing the budgets at schools serving about 11,000 students from immigrant families. Staff positions have been abolished, after-school programming lost, field trips cancelled, fresh fruits and vegetables taken away, and loan forgiveness for teachers has been erased.
In a district that is losing more than a thousand students each year, the only group that is growing is the immigrant population. We need these families and should welcome them with the services they and their children are due. Over several years, millions of dollars have not been distributed equitably to schools serving large numbers of immigrant families. These schools are being starved of essential resources and services that they would receive if poverty rates were accurate. Funding from the state is not adequate, and the scraps the city receives are not distributed equitably because the poverty rates are falling much faster at schools serving immigrant families.
The fix? It’s not using poverty multipliers and formulas based on English as a Second Language (ESL) rates. Multipliers result in too many schools with more than 100 percent poverty, and formulas based on ESL rates provide a disincentive to teach students English. The purpose of ESL is to teach students to speak English and then exit or discontinue ESL services. Basing poverty rates on the percent of ESL students is asking schools to not work as hard to exit students from ESL services — the exact opposite of the intent of the program. In addition, the passing score to exit ESL services was lowered two years ago. Lowering the cut score could mean schools lose out if money is distributed based on ESL percentages.
The answer is simple: Let schools collect the data. Principals agree. Parents trust schools. Every other district in Maryland still collects income statements in the form of lunch applications. Pass a state law requiring all districts to collect some form of an income statement from each family. An income statement — like a lunch application — should be simple and take only a few minutes to complete online or on paper. Income statements, like lunch applications, can be randomly verified to ensure accurate data. New York State, for example, requires districts to collect some form of an income statement. Maryland needs to do the same.
Matt Hornbeck is principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, recently recognized by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) as a five star school. He can be reached at email@example.com.