Connecticut needs a new way to identify low-income students

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Across Connecticut, children’s access to opportunities plays a pivotal role in their success in school. Unfortunately, children who live in low-income households often have reduced access to opportunities, and often they need additional support in school to ensure they have an equal shot at success.

From unstable housing and food insecurity to limited language exposure and parents working multiple jobs, students from low-income households may face a variety of potential challenges that impact their learning. As a far too often result, these challenges can contribute to lower educational outcomes for low-income students. This rings particularly true in Connecticut where student educational attainment has shown to be strongly correlated with a school district’s median family income.

So how is Connecticut identifying low-income students and making sure they have the resources they need for educational opportunities equal to those of their more affluent peers?

The answer: not accurately.

Currently, Connecticut identifies low-income students based on students’ eligibility for free and reduced price lunch, or “FRPL.” However, using FRPL-eligibility to identify low-income students is rapidly becoming problematic as a result of the Community Eligibility Provision of the federal Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, which allows all students to receive no-cost meals if at least 40 percent of their participating school or district’s enrollment is identified as eligible for FRPL via direct certification.

(Direct certification is a method by which students who are categorically deemed at-risk of hunger can qualify for no-cost school meals without needing to complete an application for FRPL. Connecticut students are directly certified if they are enrolled in SNAP, TANF, TFA, Head Start, or Pre-K Even Start. Additionally, districts can code students as foster, homeless, or runaway youth for the purposes of direct certification.)

Since its introduction, CEP participation rates among Connecticut schools and districts have increased annually, culminating in 42 districts and an estimated 130,000 Connecticut students participating, eligible to participate, or near eligible to participate in CEP for the 2015-16 school year.

While CEP is a valuable nutrition program, it makes FRPL functionally unusable as a proxy for counting low-income students and has the effect of artificially inflating FRPL rates in participating schools and districts because all students receive no-cost meals, regardless of family income. This inflation is particularly important when it comes to school finance.

Although Connecticut’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) formula is no longer being used faithfully to distribute state education aid to municipalities, the framework from which the grant is based provides additional funding to students who are eligible for FRPL. As more higher-need districts adopt CEP, the districts’ FRPL rates become 100 percent—meaning all of the students in the district could be counted as low-income in any education funding formula that attempts to provide additional funding to low-income students, even though not all of the students live in low-income households.

With nearly one-quarter of Connecticut’s students identified as low-income through CEP, and participation in the program expected to continue increasing, the use of FRPL as a proxy for low-income students is no longer accurate nor a useful measure for school finance.

As a result, Connecticut should consider an alternative proxy for measuring low-income students for purposes of a statewide school funding formula. Our research finds adding HUSKY A (Connecticut’s children’s Medicaid program, which includes children from birth to age 19 and their caregivers) to the measures currently used to directly certify students for school meals may be a good alternative and one solution to the growing challenge of accurately identifying low-income students.

With 93 percent of eligible children participating, adding HUSKY A’s high utilization rate to the programs and categories currently captured by direct certification provides capacity to more accurately measure low-income student percentages, while not decreasing the overall low-income student count in the state’s highest-need districts. Additionally, when comparing the number of students identified as low-income under FRPL to the number of students potentially identified as low-income by adding HUSKY A to direct certification, we find both proxies identify a similar number of children as low-income.

Connecticut’s low-income students need and deserve an equitable school finance system that recognizes, and takes into account, the variety of challenges they may face that can impact their educational success. However, in order to distribute education resources fairly, Connecticut must transition to a new method of accurately identifying low-income students.

The addition of HUSKY A to Connecticut’s direct certification program would not only be a leap toward accurate data, it would be a step forward on the path to equitable school funding and delivering the resources and opportunities all Connecticut’s students deserve.

Katie Roy is the director and founder of the Connecticut School Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to identify solutions to Connecticut’s school funding challenges that are fair to students, communities, and taxpayers. The organization recently released a report titled, “Achieving a Better Proxy for Low-Income Students in Connecticut.”

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