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Last time I checked, being poor was not a crime. But earlier this month, school officials in Kingston, Pennsylvania, treated it as one.
On July 9, Wyoming Valley West School District officials mailed a letter to approximately 40 parents, warning that if they did not pay their child’s debt for school meals, “the result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care.”
The backlash to the letter was immediate and understandable. There were those who criticized the decision to collect a meal debt in this way because it missed the larger point: Parents may not be able to afford reduced-price lunches. Shaking down parents would amount to punishing them for being poor. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) tweeted, “No child should have to imagine the horror of being ripped away from their parents because their family is struggling economically.” Sympathetic responses also sought to solve the real budget hole created by parents not paying.
NPR reported that at least five individuals each offered to pay the accumulated debt of $22,000, representing dozens of students who hadn’t paid for meals. However, the school district’s president, Joseph Mazur, who leads one of the poorest districts in the state, rejected their offers, reportedly because it was owed by parents who could pay. Mazur’s refusal laid bare the real motivations of the letter: He sought to shame parents and their children with an absurd lesson on responsibility. His warning that an educational system is willing to remove a child from a parent is one of the cruelest threats I’ve ever seen a school district make.
Competent district leaders know the pervasiveness of poverty in schools demands deeper, more compassionate solutions than shaming.
Researchers and school leaders have long used eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) as a proxy for measuring the level of poverty in a school or district. Created under the National School Lunch Act of 1948, the program’s goal is to provide nutritionally balanced meals to students. The USDA reimburses schools based on who is eligible for children’s free or reduced-price lunches. The scale of the NSLP is massive; close to 100,000 institutions provide lunch to nearly 30 million students each day. More than 20 million lunches are free, while 1.8 million of them cost students 40 cents each. That tallies up to nearly 3.6 billion free or reduced-priced lunches served annually.
A similar program, the School Breakfast Program, helps ensure children start the day with a meal. The federal government subsidizes breakfast for close to 12.5 million students each day, or approximately 2 billion breakfasts each year. Students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals if their family income dips below 130 percent or 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Line thresholds, respectively. In other words, a family of four with an income of $33,475 or less is eligible for free school meals. Children from a family of four with an income above $33,375 and up to $47,638 qualify for reduced-price meals.
Looking at the number of students utilizing these programs provides insight into the challenges schools face. A high-poverty school is defined as one in which 75 percent of students are eligible for the NSLP.
And the number of students in these schools is on the rise.
Although 12 percent of public school students attended a high-poverty school in 2000, this figure rose to 20 percent by 2011. Students of color are disproportionately affected; more than 40 percent of these students go to high-poverty schools, compared to only 8.5 percent of their white counterparts. Students who live in cities are more likely to spend time in high-poverty schools as well. In 2011, 37 percent of students in city schools went to high-poverty schools, as opposed to 10 percent in rural schools, 14 percent in suburban schools, and 15 percent in town schools.
Maybe poverty should be a crime. Too many families are in poverty for no one to be held accountable. But it’s not the families themselves who are at fault — the blame is largely on societal forces that depress worker pay. If poverty was a crime, shouldn’t those who have more say over income be held accountable, rather than those who are victims of low pay?
The monumental effects of poverty on students from early childhood to young adulthood bear examination. There is a substantial achievement gap in kindergarten-readiness between children from high- and low-income families. Between cohorts born in the 1970s and the 1990s, this gap has grown by about 40 percent. Disparities persist throughout the educational careers of low-income children. In 2009, students from low-income families dropped out of high school at five times the rate of their high-income classmates.
And schools with high concentrations of low-income students have fewer resources primarily because their districts have a poorer tax base. High-poverty districts receive about $1,200 less per student than low-poverty districts. The disparity is even greater in districts with many students of color; these districts receive $2,000 less per student. The cumulative effects of this disinvestment are substantial: “For a middle school with 500 students, for example, a $1,200 funding gap per student means a shortage of $600,000 per year. For a 1,000-student high school, it means $1.2 million in missing resources,” according to a 2015 report on education funding by the nonprofit advocacy group EdTrust.
Todd Carmichael, CEO and co-founder of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, was once one of the millions of students who receive subsidized school lunches. In a letter, he encouraged Mazur, the district president for Wyoming Valley West, to let him resolve the debt.
“Mr. Mazur, I am offering to pay this debt in full,” he wrote in an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “By saying no, you are not just shaming families who elected you, but you are placing this burden on [Wyoming Valley West] taxpayers, and that is completely unfair.” He added, “I know what it means to be hungry. I know what it means to feel shame for not being able to afford food.” Mazur has since accepted the offer, but only after a week of intense public scrutiny.
We should be trying to solve the problem and find inequitable funding structures instead of shaming students. Being poor is not emblematic of a moral debt, but criminalizing poverty is.
This story about poverty in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.