School or lunch counter?

This handy map at the New York Times shows the percentage of schoolchildren eligible for free or reduced-price lunches at school by state in 2011.

In Michigan, almost half the children are eligible -- 45 percent. And, sadly, that's a good figure, by national standards. Twenty-two states have a majority of schoolchildren qualified. In parts of the deep South and Southwest, two-thirds of schoolchildren are eligible for federal help for routine meals.

When we decided to take on our State Academic Championships project at Bridge, one key issue for us was to compare school districts against those with comparable student populations. We used the percentage of the student body receiving free (but not reduced-price) lunches to group the schools into divisions. (For more on the the methodology, click here and scroll to bottom of article.)

A point often lost, I think, in the discussion of school performance is the wide variety of duties and challenges we assign school districts. Our educational system wasn't really designed to deal with student nutrition, much less provide subsidized access to meals. Yet, in the 21st century, it passes without much remark that public schools are expected to manage a food service and its associated accounting requirements.

They also are expected to properly educate children who may not be coming to school ready to learn.

The free and reduced-price lunch program muddles this issue a bit because of its eligibility rules. There are some children in this nation who are most likely going hungry in the classical sense of the term, despite all of the public and private efforts to defeat hunger. That's on the extreme margin, though.

A child out of a four-person household qualifies for reduced-price lunches with a family income of up to $41,000. The same child would quality for free lunches if the family income was below $29,000.

The 45 percent of children in Michigan or 64 percent in Texas would not starve without food services in public schools. But, as a society, we have chosen to raise the bar a bit on nutrition and use public resources to help those struggling, for whatever reason, to help themselves. (There also was the little matter of helping out farmers who were worried about prices for the products.)

But what makes a public school intrinsically well-equipped to handle this duty? It was assigned to schools not because they have expertise in food service or accounting or discerning the intent of bureaucrats who write federal reporting requirements (or the members of Congress who stand behind them). If the goal is to get food to needy families, why not bolster the food stamp program so that families can purchase food to send with their children via the ol' brown bag?

No one really questions why schools are charged with this job, yet they are expected to do it well -- and while they are doing well on that other little duty: education.

There is plenty of room for reform in public education. But it would be helpful to the cause of actual reform if parents and voters and legislators would step back for a minute and consider all that is expected of school districts now -- and whether such expectations might have something to do with the current results.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 12/02/2011 - 12:44pm
A wonderful, valid and thoughtful article. Perhaps the governor, legislators and media ought to read this article before their next round of blasting (not blaming) teachers. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a teacher nor do I belong to a union.
Jackie D
Sat, 12/10/2011 - 7:31am
I had an aunt who taught kindergarten for 30 years in an inner city Grand Rapids school. She retired in the 60s. Hungry children in her classroom got a free breakfast (or lunch) because the teachers provided it. Children who came to school in rags got clean clothes to wear because the teachers provided them. Children could take a bath if they wanted to; the school had a tub, soap and hot water, and plenty of clean towels. Teachers took turns cleaning the tub and doing laundry. My aunt sewed up stockings at Christmas and filled them with small toys and candy and passed them out in class. She provided lots of extras for her students at holidays and birthdays---financed out of her pocket. She never earned more than $5,000 a year as a teacher. I am sure teachers would be arrested today if they provided that kind loving help. Does providing a free or lower cost lunch encourage parents to rely on that kind of help. Of course. Low income parents are not stupid. Schools get the financing to provide food because schools are face-to-face with the hungry. Schools receive some money--somehow factored in the total in convoluted ways created and updated through many years--to offset the costs of the meals. If schools have put the job of managing free-food-distribution on the teachers, and the teachers feel unable to keep up with the job, the teachers need to work that out with their school district. If school districts want to get out of the feeding hungry children business, they can work that out the government. The government can put that money somewhere else to feed children. The bottom line is that the children are hungry and the children need to eat. Ask a teacher if he or she wants to face a classroom of 30 kids who are hungry. Schools used to be the center of city neighborhoods. City planners used to lay out streets and place the schools to serve walkable communities. Most of us still vote at a school. Old people, like me, remember getting their first polio vaccine at a school, with doctors and nurses in attendance. Neighborhood meetings were held after dinner--at schools. We don't live in that world anymore. I am a fan of teachers--not teacher unions. Teacher unions do not work for children or learning or educational preparedness or safety and health. They only care about benefits for teachers. I am in favor of holding teachers accountable for quality teaching and higher learning outcomes and firing teachers who do not meet the standard. I am also in favor of holding school district administrators accountable for quantifying what their individual job efforts have contributed to quality teaching and higher learning outcomes and firing the administrators who do not meet the standard. I am in favor of reducing the size of school administration. I am in favor of charter schools. I am in favor of ending teacher pensions and setting up 401K account plans. I would love to see teacher unions lose their grip on education. We need to separate the teacher from the teacher union when we think about schools and children. Education has come to include reading/writing/arithmetic, plus history, art, music, physical education, sports teams, foreign languages, and cafeterias. Project Head Start believes there is more to successful learning than instruction and the classroom. Schools are looking at all-day kindergarten programs. Schools run tutoring programs with volunteers and/or outside groups providing volunteers. There are vocal and well-informed groups who lobby Congress about what a nutritious meal contains. The definition of education is fluid. In the interest of full disclosure, I used to teach part time at the college level--I paid union dues.