State Rep. P. Eric Turner is intent on rooting out fraud in the school lunch program paid for by the federal government and administered by the state.
Theyre stealing because theyre misrepresenting their income, Turner said in response to an audit that supposedly found a third of students enrolled in the program do not qualify or their families failed to verify eligibility.
But research from a well-respected policy analysis group suggests such a claim is wildly overstated, and a school-nutrition watchdog dissects the Indiana numbers to reveal an error rate of just about one-half of 1 percent. Look more closely at the school-lunch fraud hysteria and you begin to see that it comes from conservative groups frequently critical of public education.
Is the goal truly to eliminate fraud, or is it to shift more money from schools serving children from poverty? In light of the discredited calculations unmasked in the states A-F school grading formula, Hoosiers would be wise to check the math.
Dana Woldow, a school food advocate, takes issue with Indianas numbers in an online article she wrote for BeyondChron, an online alternative daily in San Francisco. She notes the 33 percent error rate provided by the Indiana Department of Education represents a sample of targeted applications most likely to contain errors.
Results from a biased sample cannot be extended to the entire population – thats just Statistics 101, Woldow writes. Just because 33 percent of the applications already designated as error prone did in fact turn out to contain errors, does not mean that a similar error rate would be found in the entire population of applicants.
Philip Gleason and Michael Ponza, research fellows at the Washington-based Mathematica Policy Research, found similar mischaracterizations in a 2010 Education Next article. The article cited their research to claim evidence of substantial error in students eligibility for the lunch program. But the errors in most cases dont point to fraud but to the difficulties families have in verifying eligibility, the researchers found.
This suggests that they failed to respond because they forgot, were too busy, could not locate documentation requested, or some similar reason other than fraud, according to Gleason and Ponza.
Low-income households, after all, are likely to be struggling to balance multiple jobs, child care, school responsibilities, health care, transportation issues and more. Responding to yet another questionnaire isnt always the top priority or easy to do.
Daniel Altman, press secretary for Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz, noted that the Department of Education did not allege fraud was occurring in the federal program but simply reported information from its data.
Turner, the Cicero Republican who asserted that some families are stealing from the federal government, lamented that the state has no process for prosecuting those individuals.
But Turner and his colleagues earlier found another way to punish them. They voted to distribute state funding to schools based not on free- and reduced-price lunch data but on the number of students who qualify for free textbooks. The state, not the federal government, administers the textbook program and can demand more paperwork from families in poverty. The new law requires families to submit more financial information to qualify for free textbooks. If they dont respond, it will be their childrens schools that will be shortchanged.
In the end, school funding equity will suffer as more state dollars flow from schools serving students from poverty. In time, a successful lawsuit alleging inequitable support is inevitable. Just check the math.