Gov. Eric Holcomb, in his State of the State address last week, claimed the “state of our state has never been stronger.”
At an October study committee hearing on school complexity funding – the money available to schools serving disadvantaged kids – state Rep. Tim Brown was quick to assert that Indiana is doing well financially and that Hoosiers are not as poor as they once were.
Both Holcomb and Brown might be right, according to their metrics. But when we look at free and reduced-price lunch rates, we see a different picture.
Free and reduced-price lunch eligibility is calculated as part of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, which began in 1946 under President Harry Truman. The income rates are federally determined by multiplying the current year's federal income poverty guidelines by 1.30 (to qualify for free meals) and 1.85 (to qualify for reduced-price meals).
For example, the 2019 federal income poverty level for a family of four is a maximum $25,750 annually. Multiply that amount by 1.30, and the maximum annual income for free lunches is $33,475. Multiply it by 1.85, and the maximum annual income for reduced-price lunches is $47,638. In addition, the following qualify for free lunches: children who are in households that receive benefits – SNAP or TANF – and children who are in Head Start, foster homes or meet the definition of homeless, migrant, or runaway.
The free and reduced-price figures are not a perfect indicator of poverty. For example, the data captures those up to 185% above federal poverty level. It's also self-reported, so some may not choose to report out of pride or immigration status, and others may not be honest and claim assistance when they may not qualify for it.
Problems aside, the rate is a metric used by the Indiana Department of Education. It indicates relative poverty. There is value in this metric, even with its flaws.
How are families with kids in school faring now compared with similar families in 2005-06 in Allen County school districts? Families with school-aged children appear to have gotten poorer – in our supposedly “wealthy” school districts, dramatically so. Free and reduced-price lunch rates have climbed.
The free and reduced-price rates for the years 2005-06 and 2018-19 are as follows. Fort Wayne Community Schools, a traditional urban school district, had the lowest percentage increase, at 17%, whereas Northwest Allen and Southwest Allen County Schools, often considered the “wealthly/surburban” school districts saw an increase of 116% and 334%, respectively.
Growing up in poverty
What do these percentages mean in real numbers? As demonstrated in the accompanying table, in real terms over half a million children in Indiana live in homes not making greater than $47,638 – that's half a million. In Allen County alone, there are over 26,000 of these kids. In Northwest Allen County Schools, a suburban district, there are over 1,500. Chris Himsel, Northwest Allen superintendent, recently noted that number is greater than the total student population of 30% of the school districts in the state of Indiana.
Bear in mind, this comparison is between three full years before the greatest economic recession in our life time and 10 years after. Further, it's been said that these last three years are the best economic times in American financial history.
What you can do
When poverty goes up, so does the importance of public schools in children's lives as stable places with caring adults. Your attention to the environment in your child's school matters. Throughout the state, some school districts are cutting programs like arts and languages. Some may lack full-time nurses, librarians and counselors.
Parents and community members must step up to help schools. Ask how you can help. Attend school board meetings. Meet with your state legislators. Talk about the problems in your community. Get engaged. Vote for public education.
Noah Smith, a Fort Wayne resident, is administrator of the Keep Indiana Schools Strong Facebook page. Keri Miksza, a Bloomington resident, is vice chair of the Indiana Coalition for Public Education-Monroe County.