Free lunch could hurt federal funding for Tennessee schools

Memphis and Nashville schools worry about Title 1 funding under Community Eligibility Provision.

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—For the first time this fall, students in Memphis and Nashville won’t have to supply information about their family’s income to get free lunch at school. The move is meant to ensure that poor students get the nutrition they need — but bureaucratic rules mean it could could also cost schools federal funding.

It depends on how many parents return a form being sent home to parents this month asking for income information. A shift in how districts account for how many low-income students it has could potentially impact how much funding districts receive for crucial services funded by federal grants.  If too many parents don’t turn in their income information to schools, it will appear that the number of low-income students have dropped, and districts will get less money.

“Parents need to know that filling out this survey will determine how much Title I dollars the school will receive,” said Beverly Davis, the PTA president at Whitehaven High School. Davis plans to discuss the form at this month’s PTA meeting, because she said that parents did not know why they should return the form.  “If they don’t fill it out, I’m concerned it may come back to bite us.”

For years, school systems across Tennessee used the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch as a proxy for the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. That number informs the amount of federal dollars available for a range of services geared at boosting traditionally disadvantaged students’ test scores, from after school tutoring and textbooks to professional development for teachers.

But this year, Shelby County Schools, Millington Schools, and Metro Nashville Public Schools are participating in a new federal program that supplies all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, with free meals. That program, part of the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act, will ensure more kids get nutritional meals, increase revenue from the United States Department of Agriculture, and speed up lunch lines.

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