Monday, December 13, 2010

The free-lunch fraud flap

With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' poverty level creeping up and 2011 budget cuts looming, a long-running debate over the validity of school poverty numbers is ratcheting up.

CMS, like districts nationwide, uses eligibility for federal lunch subsidies to gauge school poverty (the formal term these days is "economically disadvantaged students"). The district recently released those numbers for each school. The total rose from about 51 percent of all students last year to 53 percent this year.

The cutoff for lunch aid is higher than the federal standard of poverty -- up to $40,793 for a family of four to get a reduced-price lunch, compared with $22,050 for the same-size family to be classified as living in  poverty. Eligibility is based on an honor system; with rare exceptions, CMS doesn't ask for proof of income.

Those exceptions are a small sampling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the lunch program, requires to be verified. In 2008, the Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, noted that many of the families audited in CMS and other N.C. districts either failed to provide documentation or had their benefits reduced or ended based on proof of income (read that article here). The Journal talked about fraud and lying; state officials talked about family errors.

CMS's most recent sampling turned up similar results. According to Child Nutrition Director Cindy Hobbs, CMS checked 236 applications. Of those, 128, or 54 percent, maintained their benefits. Fifteen percent didn't respond, 13 percent were found not to be eligible and 18 percent were moved into a different category (most went from free to reduced-price, though a handful went the other way).

Whether you believe those numbers derive from lying, honest mistakes or a combination of the two, they do raise questions: Are thousands of families getting government aid they're not entitled to? And is CMS doling out millions of dollars in school aid based on squishy data? This year more than 74,000 students are classified as "economically disadvantaged" based on lunch applications; even 13 percent would amount to almost 10,000 who aren't really qualified.

In 2008, some board members' call for a systemwide audit of lunch applications died quickly. The USDA foots the bill -- more than $38 million for CMS students last year -- and makes the rules, and the feds don't allow that.

Many who are willing to let kids keep eating free lunches still cringe at CMS using those numbers to allot teachers (see previous blog post on that subject), supplies and other aid, especially now that the district is facing roughly $100 million in likely cuts next year.

"It's riddled with fraud," school board member Kaye McGarry said recently. "When you have millions of dollars that are allocated on those numbers, to me that is ludicrous."

McGarry agrees some schools need more help than others, and she offers no specifics on how to identify them: "It just seems there has to be a better way."

Trent Merchant, who was new to the board in 2008, initially agreed. He worked with CMS staff as they experimented with other data to identify kids who need extra help, such as the number of disabled or gifted students or those learning English. As Merchant recalls, formulas that were far more complicated yielded virtually the same results as using lunch status.

What about basing aid on the percent of students who test below grade level? After all, some middle-class kids can't read or do math, while some from low-income homes do great. But it's easy to see the downside of that: "Congratulations, Principal Smith; your staff did a great job! Your school's test scores rose so much that you'll lose three teachers next year."

The bottom line, Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff keep saying, is that school poverty levels are the strongest, simplest predictor of academic struggles. For now, they're likely to remain the basis for aid.

But in a year filled with tough choices, don't expect this battle to end.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Look, the free lunch crowd is made up of the same demographic that we've throw billions at for the past 50 years. Nothing is going to change no matter what we call it. "A hand up, not a hand out", well that's just nonsense. It always has been a hand out and it always will be a hand out, and the demographics of those accepting, expecting, and abusing the program has not changed since it was first offered.

Anonymous said...

If nothing is expected in return, then nothing will change. How about if you get free or reduced lunch, oh, excuse me, if you are economically challenged, then you should have to volunteer a specific amount of time in your child's school. Sweat equity buys your child lunch.

Anonymous said...

Some families take it who don't deserve it- American entitlement at its finest...
Other families need it- but would rather work 3 jobs and live paycheck to paycheck in an overcrowded apartment, go without cell phones and cable TV than ask for it- the American dream in action!
I support the latter! We ALL should!

therestofthestory said...

Just goes to show the low level of integrity to expect out of CMS.

Anonymous said...

Snarky comments aside, I'm the first to admit that FRL leaves a lot to be desired as a measure of school poverty. But these audits have an obvious methodological problem: auditing FRL applications for accuracy will show some applications that should be disqualified. But unless you audit the tax returns of everyone in a school (or school district), you will not catch families who qualify but did not apply, whether because of stigma, lack of awaeness of the program or whatever. We have no idea how far off the number of FRL students is from the true number of students who qualify, but the audit Ann describes is a one-way street - it will only show overcounting, not undercounting.

Anonymous said...

Typical government program with no checks and balances. No accountability and pandering excuses about hunger and learning. Now, the free or reduced lunch is the entry point for all kind of perks dealing with fee forgiveness. A neighbor actually proved the point by qualifying his 3 children for free lunches. He is a physician and his wife an RN. They didn't accept the free lunch program but wanted to see if he could game the system. His children now go to private school.

Anonymous said...

I personally know a (white) family making $70K who applied for free lunch - and take it - because they're too lazy to make it everyday for their children.

Anonymous said...

I agree that this will not show those who qualify but do not apply, but if things are really bad they will apply. What it blatantly does show is that the FRL program provides lunches to many that do not qualify. If you do a sampling and have that many errors clearly you should change the system as there is a BIG PROBLEM!!!

JAT said...

It is CMS' very own version of don't ask-don't tell.

Amazing that an adjunct of DSS misplaces a few hundred thousand federal dollars and the FBI and US Atty are all over it, but the possibility that millions in free lunch money is misspent doesn't rate a phone call.

wiley said...

Ann,

I have been harping about this issue for years and I appreciate you bringing it up. I had begun to think you were going to keep ignoring this problem.

Children who truly deserve the benefit is not the issue.

The issue is that the FRL number is used to decide many things, such as alotting teachers, who gets FREE AP/IB tests and play sports for FREE.

It's a slap in the face for those of us who subsidize this program and then have to turn around and subsidize CMS through testing fees and sports fees.

Obama stated his health care plan would be paid for by eliminating waste and fraud in Medicare and Medicaid.

Why can't he and other politicians demand the same from the USDA and have the money saved redirected into the classrooms?

therestofthestory said...

This is the dilemma the BOE has with this policy. If you change the policy of putting extra funds at schools with low academic performance, then you will know when the effort is futile and the public will demand the dollars will stop being spent. If however you contiue on this path of using the proven highly questionable FRL (ED) data, then it will always be increasing and will continue to draw more and more money from the budget.

Anonymous said...

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE FREE LUNCHES, IT’S ABOUT WEIGHT FUNDING!

When Ken Gjertsen introduced his question about FRL eligibility I was in the audience. What I watched was an embarrassing display from public officials. Mr. Gauvreau would have had you believe that it was all criminal intent while Ms. Leake said all school support staff should eat free.

I wrote each board member a strong letter reminding them that one-size-fits-all accusations and complete misunderstanding of the law was a cut below anything that was wrong with FRL.

At the next board meeting staff reinforced that the Federal Government was not about to put up with any nonsense created on a local level. And it was clearly stated that if CMS wanted to go that route it would have to fund the whole lunch program out of its own pocket.

The FRL food program was birthed at the beginning of WWII when induction officers found so many recruits undernourished and unqualified for service. The program’s basic intent has never change; protect America by preventing malnutrition. But in the late 1960’s the focus expanded by adding provisions to aid the goal of public school integration. That is why today the formula is better nutrition means children better prepared to learn.

Here’s the CMS problem today. It needs to find a more precise way to identify learning problems than the number of economically disadvantaged families. Neither poverty nor hungry help spot the seemingly unreachable student. Not all hungry students are poor learners. The well-fed have no monopoly on ability.

I encourage CMS to do the following:

1> Fund K through 3 at the highest priority.
2> Starting at grade 4 base weighted funding on prior classroom performance, not FRL applications.

Bolyn McClung
CMSdollars.com
Pineville

wiley said...

Bolyn...you're missing the point.

I agree with everything you said but when several audits determine upwards of 60% of the people don't qualify, that is money being wasted and could be spent on the very programs you want to implement.

Furthermore, virtually every program within the schools is predicated on that bogus FRL number.

That's one of the issues.

This is a national problem and not just in our system:

For Immediate Release: November 18, 2009

Contact: David Bass, dbass@carolinajournal.com

STANFORD – In a time of penny pinching inspired by tight state and local education budgets, investigative reporter David Bass warns that taxpayers are picking up the tab for a large number of ineligible students who participate in the federal school-lunch program because the process for verifying eligibility for the program is fundamentally broken. Even more problematic may be the effect on school funding formulas, on research, and on accountability measures of misidentifying these students as poor. Bass’s findings appear in “Fraud in the Lunchroom,” in the forthcoming issue of Education Next, which is now available at www.EducationNext.org.


http://educationnext.org/fraud-in-school-lunch-program-not-just-about-free-lunches/

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1996 Article from Nebraska...

Originally aired February 9, 1996

The School Lunch Plunder
by Brad Penner, STATEWIDE Correspondent

Every school day in Nebraska, more than 50,000 children eat free lunches at school. The program is supposed to ensure that children from low-income families get a good meal so they're better prepared to learn. Few would argue with that goal. But one Nebraska school district found that the benefits aimed at the poor are being claimed by those who are not, at least not by the standards set by the government.
Administrators in South Sioux City started getting concerned a couple of years ago. They were finding more cases of people misstating their incomes when they applied for free or reduced price lunches. They also found that more than half of the people they asked were unwilling or unable to prove that they met income standards for the program. A check of the numbers showed a similar situation in a couple of other school districts. In South Sioux City they decided to do something about it. They may become the first school district in the country to prosecute people for lying on an application form. They want to make sure that families who can afford it don't get a free lunch.

Anonymous said...

I’VE NEVER MISSED THE POINT

Wiley,

The years of 1963 and 1964 were watersheds for determining that if people weren’t going to treat each other right then the Feds were going to use all our dollars to force that on us, you, me, them and any other conceivable pronoun. Thus began the race to see how much could be spent in the name of education. The only possible crimes where by those who tried to restrict and limit the spending; not misspending, not frauds, and occasionally not even personal gain. Those two years were probably so nasty that it will be another fifty years before Washington will admit to any progress.

So, rule number one: Don’t mess with the USDA!

Rule number two: There is no second rule.

In the data driven world of CEO-like administrations that schools systems have chosen to be, there should be little tolerance for such one dimensional numbers as FRL. Just let it furnish nutrition. Schools systems need to use their own data derived from the performances of local students to determine funding thresholds.

In budget years 2008-2009, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 I asked the board to consider phasing-in weighted funding based on academic performance and begin phasing-out FRL based budgeting. I never met a stonewall but nothing ever happened. That number is like a cancer. I hope 2011-2012 will be different.

Bolyn McClung
CMSdollars.com
Pineville

Anonymous said...

Prosecute those that falsify their income level? Do you really think this BOE would have the guts to do that?

Anonymous said...

Ann,

If you don't qualify for the program, but you sign up anyway then you are guilty of THEFT.

While your alliteration was cute...I would have used a stronger word then "flap". How about the coming "free lunch fraud FIRESTORM" ?

wiley said...

I have no problem messing with the USDA.

Neither should the politicians in this state.

When Obama stands before Congress and the American people and says he will pay for health care by eliminating waste and fraud in MC& MC, I expect no less from the FRL program and the USDA.

We just need some politicians with spines to do it.

therestofthestory said...

Bolyn, I think you might have mistaken where some folks have their objection to using FRL numbers as a means to distribute extra money to schools for a different purpose. Make it clear, we are aware there are kids and families that need help getting nutritional needs met.

Separate from that, there are kids that need academic help to obtain a performance level so they can successfully graduate from high school. I believe those struggling kids need "some" assistance at times in that endeavor. Yes "some" is qualified. Those efforts must obtain academic improvement or they must end to either save those precious few tax dollars or be redirected to efforts that do improve achievement.

This "extra" money, which most people call weighted student funding, is not charity. It is not reparations. It is not "white guilt" payment. It is precious tax dollars "conficated" from too few, and getting fewer, who clearly could use it better for their own families. However this liberal and presently failing policy is driving too many "good" students and families out of CMS and out of Mecklenburg County.

Sadly, there is too little common sense left in the BOCC, CMS ivory tower and BOE to make me optimistic that we will get on the right track with either efficiently spending tax money or really academically helping the students needing help. It is reminiscent to "groupthink" and its failing outcomes.

So, sadly, our last hope for saving Mecklenburg County students may be to get legislative help since CMS's demographics are so out of whack with the county's.

Am I confident a new group of leaders can come out of this county that would ensure all students have at least adequate resources and buildings for thir education? No. Am I confident the state school board could take over the system and ensure these things? No.

But we know too low of a percentag eof the budget is making it to the schoolhouse to help the students and teachers. There is one thing that could be done that would really improve the academic outcome of many of these failing students. Clear out the small percentage of students that are "spoiling the barrel". Schools would be much safer. STudents could relaly learn and enjoy coming to school. Teachers would be much more effective. Right now, teachers have inadequate "rules of engagement" to deal with many of these troublesome students.

therestofthestory said...

Bolyn, I think you might have mistaken where some folks have their objection to using FRL numbers as a means to distribute extra money to schools for a different purpose. Make it clear, we are aware there are kids and families that need help getting nutritional needs met.

Separate from that, there are kids that need academic help to obtain a performance level so they can successfully graduate from high school. I believe those struggling kids need "some" assistance at times in that endeavor. Yes "some" is qualified. Those efforts must obtain academic improvement or they must end to either save those precious few tax dollars or be redirected to efforts that do improve achievement.

This "extra" money, which most people call weighted student funding, is not charity. It is not reparations. It is not "white guilt" payment. It is precious tax dollars "conficated" from too few, and getting fewer, who clearly could use it better for their own families. However this liberal and presently failing policy is driving too many "good" students and families out of CMS and out of Mecklenburg County.

Sadly, there is too little common sense left in the BOCC, CMS ivory tower and BOE to make me optimistic that we will get on the right track with either efficiently spending tax money or really academically helping the students needing help. It is reminiscent to "groupthink" and its failing outcomes.

So, sadly, our last hope for saving Mecklenburg County students may be to get legislative help since CMS's demographics are so out of whack with the county's.

Am I confident a new group of leaders can come out of this county that would ensure all students have at least adequate resources and buildings for thir education? No. Am I confident the state school board could take over the system and ensure these things? No.

But we know too low of a percentag eof the budget is making it to the schoolhouse to help the students and teachers. There is one thing that could be done that would really improve the academic outcome of many of these failing students. Clear out the small percentage of students that are "spoiling the barrel". Schools would be much safer. STudents could relaly learn and enjoy coming to school. Teachers would be much more effective. Right now, teachers have inadequate "rules of engagement" to deal with many of these troublesome students.

therestofthestory said...

Sorry for the double post. I think so many are posting right now, the system though I was trying to walk on them.

Anonymous said...

While we're on the high horse topic of school ethics...

I have to question the kind of parent(s) who would cheat the system in order to get a free high fat, processed cheesed meal with greasy French fries. Sure, like the kids are really eating the sliced apples and carrot sticks they are required to put on their plate. On the other hand, I personally know a number of wealthier parents who wouldn't dream of applying for free lunch but have no problem cheating the system in order to get their children into the school of their choice.

So, you decide. Who's more unethical?

Anonymous said...

My dog knows more than "Trent Merchant!!"

Anonymous said...

CMS = See a Mess

Anonymous said...

Why not just require some documentation showing your family qualifies for food stamps and call it done?

Anonymous said...

Boosting the number of people receiving reduced or free lunches also skews the accuracy of reporting on the "success" of those in the program.

I think that is one reason people aren't too interested in the truth; it makes the school performance for "poor" students look better.

Just give everyone a free lunch and many more schools will meet those gubmint achievement goals for the "underprivileged".

It's all a bunch of self-serving lies for everyone involved in hiding the truth.

Anonymous said...

America certainly changed a lot in the 20th century.

I was listening to some interviews with older people who lived through the Great Depression.

Many of them talked about how they were so reluctant to take "charity" even when they literally did not have enough to eat.


At that time, people were actually ashamed that they could not provide for themselves.

Now people have absolutely no shame in applying for help they definitely do not need.

Our system is falling apart due to the false assumption of people's basic honesty.

This is not the America that became so great during the last century.

The vultures are circling.

Anonymous said...

Gim me my free lunch so's I can buy my babies 300 dallar jordans.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how people that make soo much money can qualify for free lunch for their children.My landlords husband has his on construction company & she works cleaning houses for rich people 25 yrs.she told she makes 2880 a month her self we rent her guest house & pay 1100 & we pay are utilities.She only has one son & his son gets free lunch at school & free daycare afterschool & her sister the same .no wonder the economy is down