Why Do We Even Have School Lunch Debt

While some legislators are working to end the horrific practice of lunch shaming, Jill Richardson writes that we shouldn’t have school lunch debt at all because school lunch should be free.

A Google search for “paying school lunch debt” reveals a long list of recent news stories about good Samaritans paying off the school lunch debt of children whose families cannot afford it.

A Fredonia, New York man paid off $2,000 in school lunch debt in his area, helping 140 families. A Rigby, Idaho tattoo shop raised $1,200. Nationally, a charity called School Lunch Fairy has raised nearly $150,000 to pay off the school lunch debt of children in need.

These stories are heartwarming, and the people who donate are angels. But let’s look at the bigger picture: Why is there school lunch debt in the first place?

In 2008, Mark Winne wrote in his book Closing the Food Gap that he knew how to end hunger. I was impressed. What could it be? I figured the answer must be terribly complex.

But it wasn’t. End poverty, Winne wrote.

This ties back to the work of Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics who found that hunger was not due to a lack of food, but a lack of a right to food. If you lack the ability to buy food or grow your own food, and nobody gives you food, then in a capitalist economy, you are not legally entitled to food.

Or, in this case, if your parents cannot afford food, then children are not legally entitled to eat at school.

Let’s divide this into two distinct issues, a moral one and a more practical one.

Letting children go hungry in the richest country on earth is wrong. Period. That’s the moral one.

Now, speaking practically, providing free and reduced cost lunch to children of low-income families serves several purposes at once.

It provides for children’s physical needs as an end in itself, while helping them focus on learning while at school. It provides jobs in food service for adults. It even creates demand for commodities to help keep prices up for farmers.

Going one step further, the National School Lunch Act was actually passed as a matter of national security after the Great Depression and World War II. Lawmakers considered undernourishment a liability if it meant young people weren’t healthy enough to fight the next Hitler.

Whatever the reason, ensuring children have enough to eat during the school day is also an economic stimulus and a matter of public good. We all do better if we live in a nation where children grow up healthy, educated, and well nourished.

But we already have the National School Lunch Program, which offers children of low-income families free and reduced price lunch. So why is there still an epidemic of school lunch debt?

For one thing, qualifying for free or reduced price lunch usually involves some burdensome paperwork, so families who should qualify for it don’t always receive it. In other cases, bureaucratic errors can saddle families with thousands in debt for lunches they thought were covered.

The Trump administration is actually making that problem worse by no longer automatically enrolling children in families that qualify for SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, for school lunch assistance.

We live in a nation where food is plentiful but millions of children experience hunger and food insecurity. Feeding our kids shouldn’t fall only to kind strangers and acts of charity.

Instead, a nationwide epidemic of school lunch debt points to a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution. Our kids deserve universal school lunch — and real plans to end poverty in the richest country on earth.

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Distributed by OtherWords.org.

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9000

Tucked inside this Chalkbeat story on Hamilton County dropping its lawsuit over state funding of public schools is a note about just how inadequate the formula (the BEP) is.


In Tennessee, classroom size requirements have forced districts to hire more than 9,000 teachers beyond what the BEP provides to pay for their salaries, according to a statewide analysis presented by the Department of Education in December to the BEP Review Committee.

When looking at an average actual salary for Tennessee teachers of around $52,000, this means that local districts are responsible for $468 million in teacher salary expenses before benefits are included. That’s an unfunded mandate that easily exceeds half a billion dollars.

No one is suggesting we hire less teachers. In fact, many districts report needing additional teachers and other staff — such as nurses and counselors — to adequately serve their students.

However, this number does show that our state systematically underfunds public schools in a way not addressed by the current funding formula. It’s likely that when you combine the unfunded salary and benefits of teachers and the needs for programs like RTI2 with the proper staffing levels for nurses and counselors, you’d see a number exceeding $1 billion.

Let’s be clear: The state’s own Department of Education has provided information to the committee responsible for reviewing the state funding formula that indicates we’re at least $500 million behind where we should be in terms of current funding.

It’s also worth noting that these numbers don’t include any significant boost in pay for existing teachers.

In short: Tennessee is not properly funding schools.

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An End to Lunch Shaming

Nashville State Rep. John Ray Clemmons has filed legislation that would end the practice of “lunch shaming” in Tennessee public schools, WSMV reports.


A state lawmaker has introduced a bill to help students who cannot pay for their lunches.
It’s called the ‘Anti-lunch Shaming’ bill.
Representative John Ray Clemmons has presented the bill two times before.

Students would receive the same lunch as their peers.
This bill would ban schools from taking actions against students who can’t pay for their lunches or those with lunch debt.

This is the third consecutive year Clemmons has introduced the legislation. The last two years saw the bill go down to defeat in legislative subcommittees.

Here’s more on that:


Republicans voted 4-2 to defeat The Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act—a bill with three measures to ensure students can eat school lunches and not be punished when parents fail to pay meal fees or a meal debt.


Last year, an education subcommittee also rejected a bill sponsored by Clemmons that would have prevented lunch shaming. Every legislator who has opposed this bill in the last two sessions has been a Republican.

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It’s the Air Filters

While Tennessee has a clear need for school infrastructure upgrades, especially as it relates to lead in water, it’s also worth noting that improving air quality in schools could have tremendous benefits for students — both in terms of health and academics. A new study highlighted in Vox notes that student achievement improves when schools install air filters.


The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

A study following the installation of the air filters noted a significant impact on student performance:


He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”

These findings are consistent with other data on the subject:

But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test alone. He found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.

So, a relatively inexpensive change in schools could have a big, positive impact on every student in the state. By contrast, school vouchers represent a very expensive intervention that negatively impacts participating students:


Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

So, will the Tennessee General Assembly repeal the voucher legislation and move forward with a plan to add air filters to classrooms?

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TEA on 2020 School Funding

The Tennessee Education Association is out with an analysis of how revenue estimates from the State Funding Board impact money available for our public schools. Here’s more:


Tennessee is so far behind it would take $1.2 billion annually to reach the Southeast average. The good news is Tennessee has the revenue available to make a $1.2 billion investment in a few years without raising taxes. The bad news is the state follows a budget process that chronically underestimates revenue growth, thus withholding billions from classrooms. 


For five years actual revenue growth was more than double state estimates, leaving $3 billion in surplus while public schools remain under-funded. While state K-12 funding did increase by $700 million over those years, had the state doubled K-12 investment to $1.4 billion, a substantial surplus would still have remained while also moving Tennessee schools out of the bottom 10 in funding. 


There is already a problem with this year’s estimates. The State Funding Board, a panel of constitutional officers and the state finance director, recently approved a growth rate of between 2.7% and 3.1%, well below even the most pessimistic predictions by economists hired by the state. 
It is the lowest rate since 2014, when the board predicted little to no growth. This led then-Gov. Haslam to eliminate a promised $50 million state teacher raise. Actual revenue grew 5% in 2014-2015, leading to a $552 million surplus while teachers got nothing. 


The board also had to increase its growth estimate for 2019-2020, predicting a general fund surplus of $430 – $500 million. Even this upward revision may be far too low. First-quarter general fund growth was 8.1%, more than double the revised estimate, which could generate a surplus up to $900 million. Teachers got $72 million for salaries in this budget. It could have been $272 million.

Governor Bill Lee, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, and House GOP Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison have all suggested this will be the year Tennessee makes a big investment in teacher pay. Will these leaders use low-ball funding board revenue estimates to nix this raise? Or, will they look at historic data suggesting the money is there and use that information to push for a significant boost in pay for teachers and investment in schools?

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Spare Change

Senate Finance Chair Bo Watson wants you to spend your spare change on Tennessee’s public schools. Watson touts the Volunteer Public Education Trust Fund in a recent piece distributed around the state. Here’s more:

For all those who clamor for more financial investment in K-12 public education, there is a perfect investment opportunity for you – the Volunteer Public Education Trust.

Watson then goes on to highlight the many potential benefits of investment in this fund.

Let’s be clear: A state that is 45th in the nation in school funding is now asking people to just donate their extra cash to a fund to help boost schools.

Watson sounds like he’s not among “all those who clamor” for more investment in our schools. But, hey, if YOU are, go for it.

Watson fails to mention that Tennessee has banked over $3 billion in surpluses over the past five years. Was that money invested in public schools? No! Instead, the inheritance tax and Hall investment tax were phased out.

In fact, a recent analysis indicates that while state revenue is up by an 7% over the past 10 years when adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries are down by 2.6% over the same time period.

This lack of commitment to directing available dollars to public schools is why Tennessee earned an “F” for effort in a recent comparison of state spending on education.

Now, instead of committing to use state funds to fill a $500 million hole in school funding, Watson is suggesting collecting spare change from donors in order to meet the needs of our state’s schoolchildren.


The Volunteer Public Education Trust is now ready for contributions from individuals, businesses and corporations that will transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee.

Here’s another way to transform the way we fund public education in Tennessee: Start funding education in Tennessee.

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Wish List

Nashville attorney Jamie Hollin takes on the Chamber of Commerce as he discusses the “Adopt-a-Teacher” program. Here are some highlights:


Our elected officials have chronically underfunded public education in Tennessee at virtually every level. The fact we rank near the bottom in the U.S. in per-pupil spending should surprise no one.


But governments have accomplices, and one of them here is the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has consistently advocated for policies that undercut our public schools.


When Mayor Karl Dean proposed a modest 53-cent property tax increase in 2012, largely to increase pay for early career teachers and make Metro schools more competitive, the Chamber had to be dragged into supporting it. When the school board joined a lawsuit to force the state to live up to their promises and fully fund schools, the Chamber was and has been silent.

The Chamber has been vocal about supporting charter schools, though, and unabated charter growth now accounts for $130 million that could be going to traditional public schools. The Chamber has also supported vouchers in the past and now Gov. Bill Lee’s plan looks like it will take another $330 million out of public schools in Davidson and Shelby counties by 2024.

Read more from Hollin about the Nashville Chamber and the current “budget crisis” that may prevent further investment in Nashville’s public schools.

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We’re #1

A new report indicates Tennessee is a national leader in at least one education category. Jason Gonzales in the Tennessean notes that Tennessee has one of the lowest investments in the nation in rural schools.

Specifically, the report states:


For example, the report said: “22 states have decreased their state contributions for every local dollar invested in rural schools. Tennessee has seen the greatest drop ($1.68, down from $2.11 per local dollar).”

So, six years ago education officials touted the “fastest-improving” NAEP scores — which turned out to be an outlier. Now, we’ll see how (if) they do anything to improve funding for rural schools.

We’re already in a state where teachers earn less than similarly-trained professionals and we’re at the bottom in both overall investment in schools and funding effort relative to ability. In fact, another recent report gave Tennessee a grade of “F” in funding effort:


The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is out finding a new plaid shirt for this weekend’s faux farmer update. He’ll post to Twitter and pretend he cares about rural schools while pushing an aggressive privatization agenda.

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A Different Kind of Test

Amid reports of lead in the water at schools across Tennessee, health experts are advising parents to have children tested, according to WREG in Memphis. Here’s more:

Health experts said there’s a wide range of severity and symptoms when dealing with lead poisoning, with anything from mild nausea and headaches to developmental problems. But with the levels found in the two dozen SCS locations, doctors are optimistic for student and faculty safety.

“With the amount of lead that they’re talking about, 1% above the EPA threshold, the likelihood that those children ingested toxic amounts of lead is low,” said Dale Criner, medical director of St. Francis Hospital Bartlett. “There’s still a possibility, but it’s low.”

Doctors recommend a simple blood test to determine exposure levels.

As a result of state legislation, school systems across the state are testing buildings for lead. The results have not been encouraging:

So far, 134 schools in Tennessee have at least one water source with unacceptably high levels of lead, according to a story in Chalkbeat:


So far, more than 100 schools in 31 districts across Tennessee found at least one water source above 20 parts per billion.

As noted before, the infrastructure concerns are being raised at a time when Gov. Lee is pushing state funds to charter schools by way of a “capital improvement slush fund.”

It’s also worth noting that studies have consistently indicated that the quality of the buildings where a student learn impact overall student achievement:

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.


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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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