The Answer is Yes

School meals should be free for all kids all the time

School lunch debt is gross and should not exist.

Tennessee continues to allow school lunch debt to persist, despite significant resources that would and could create a free school meal program for all kids.

The state has spent $500 million for a new Titans stadium and $1.6 billion on a corporate tax giveaway.

Those two expenses alone are three times the cost of providing free school meals for all kids in Tennessee public schools.

MORE TENNESSEE NEWS

TN Doctors Call for Gun Safety Reform

Claiming a Benefit That Wasn’t Earned

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.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Your support$5 or more today — makes publishing education news possible.

Lunch Money

The Tennessean reports on Metro Nashville Public Schools scaling back the offering of free lunch to all students.

Nashville schools is set to scale back a popular program that provides free lunch to all of its students.

The district currently provides free lunch to all students, regardless of income, but now plans to limit the program to 74 schools next year, while families at other schools must file paperwork to receive free-or-reduced lunch rates.

Why?

The district first began using the program in 2014, but must reapply for grant funding every four years, Stark said.

During that time, the number of students within the district recorded as needing federal assistance has dropped — from about 60 percent to just under 50 percent, Stark said.

The lower percentage of students eligible means the federal government won’t cover as much of the cost to provide free lunch to all students, Stark said.

The cost to MNPS to absorb the shortfall and continue offering the program across the board is $8 million. That’s less than one percent of the entire system budget.

Angst?

Nashville schools will still continue to provide free breakfast to students next year, Stark said. The money to fund that program comes from other sources, he said.

“We are hoping that can alleviate at least some of the angst,” he said.

Interesting that the concern from the standpoint of MNPS is parent angst, not student hunger.

Also worth noting: This announcement came on the same day that legislation to prevent “lunch shaming” sponsored by John Ray Clemmons of Nashville failed in a House committee. That bill would have prohibited separating students who had an outstanding meal debt at school. Clemmons cited a story about one Tennessee school where students with unpaid lunch debt were made to eat a peanut butter sandwich in the principal’s office.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rep. Joe Pitts for the Tennessee Education Report. He is a member of the House Education Committee and the House Education Subcommittee. He is a vocal voice in both committees. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

Let’s start with Vouchers:

What impact will vouchers have on local school districts in terms of budget and tax burden?

A:  Vouchers will have an immediate impact on local government’s budgets and the potential impact on local property tax is significant.  The voucher will further dilute public education funding currently going to the local school district which has an extensive infrastructure – buildings, supervisory staff, transportation, etc. that supports ALL students residing in their jurisdiction.  It is a delicate balance of funds that can be turned upside down if a sudden shift in funding policy, like vouchers, is made.

Do you believe that even if a limited voucher plan passes, the ultimate goal is statewide vouchers with broad qualifications? 

A:  If the past is prologue to the future, then one only need to look at the Charter school authorization passed many years ago by the General Assembly.  The original concept was to address at-risk students in schools within specific geographic boundaries, and we even had a limit on the number of charter schools within those communities. Now, despite evidence to the contrary, Charter schools are available statewide for every student regardless of academic need.  While Charter schools certainly have their place, given the right circumstances, it should be a tool at the LEA’s disposal.

An amendment recently passed to make private schools provide school lunches to those who come to the school via vouchers. Does that help your concern about students choosing free lunch or a private school?

A:  Requiring a school participating in the voucher program to offer a school lunch program makes a flawed proposal less objectionable but still not one I can support.  We don’t need a voucher program for at-risk students in failing schools.  Currently if a student is in a failing school, the parents can raise their hand and request their student go to another, non-failing school, in the same district without sacrificing basic human needs like breakfast and lunch, and transportation, and special needs students get access to the services they need.

Why do you think the GOP is focused on vouchers/charters instead of fully-funding BEP 2.0?

A:  Take a look around the country.  Vouchers seem to be the “cause de jour.”  It appears our education system is the last bastion of public funded services that haven’t been co-opted by the for-profit sector; sadly, not anymore.

Finally, do you think there will be transition problems when taking a child out of a public school and placing them in a private school? Do you think the child may fall behind from the start?

A:  When the child moves from one public school to another public school, or in this case, a private school, it will present some challenges.  Children are resilient though, but I am concerned about the moving back and forth between and among systems since not all private school curriculum lines up with the public school system.

Let’s more on to charters.

Do you believe the recent charter authorizer bill is taking away local control from local education boards?

A:  Yes.  Sadly, as amended, the bill would establish a non-elected group of people appointed by both Speakers and the Governor, to decide how and how much local tax money could be obligated for a state authorized charter school. That’s like the state deciding how big your police force should be and sending you the bill. This is just plain wrong.

Are you supportive of charter schools that get local approval or would you rather limit how many charter schools can open in the state?

A:  I do believe charter schools are a good option for LEA’s who need to try something different for students with specific academic needs.  Being a member of a local school board is a difficult task.  You are required and responsible for the academic achievement of all students in your district but have no say in the funding allocated by any of the funding entities.  I am not a fan of establishing limits on schools if the LEA has control of the authorization.

General Education Questions

If you were the commissioner of education, what would be the first thing you would do to improve public education in Tennessee?

A:  Three things simultaneously:  I would implore the Governor to make it our policy that no new changes would be sought or implemented for two years or until we can sort out the changes enacted in the last two years.

Next I would meet with the school directors and school boards, individually, of every district with a failing school and let them know we are going to become partners.  Instead of a shotgun marriage, it would be a partnership based on putting our resources where are mouths are and helping the failing schools first and immediately.  Students struggling in schools are very often victims of their home environment.  I would deploy an intervention team consisting of master level social workers, health professionals and academic coaches to these schools immediately to provide intensive work and support.

Lastly, I would work with the Charter schools to create a bold new platform for turning around these schools in our districts not meeting expectations.  We need to look beyond the numbers and think about year round charter schools, extended hours, or other non-traditional means to address the needs of the students and their families.  A charter school that mirrors a traditional public school hardly seems worth the effort.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our LEA’s are performing at a high level, given the meager resources we allocate to them, and are open to our help, be it public or private, to give our students the best education experience possible.

Certain reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst have very specific policy agendas for reforming education. Some of the typical policies associated with these groups include vouchers, charter schools, pay-for-performance, and ending seniority rules.

What’s the counter-argument?  What are the marquee policies Democrats embrace?  If there aren’t a set of marquee proposals everyone is on board with, why not?  What’s being done to get the Democrats on a united front, to have a set of counter proposals instead of just playing defense?

A:  The reform movement initiatives, added to the self-inflicted policy crush imposed on LEA’s over the past three years, is contributing nothing to the public discourse about improving student performance.  If you think about it, we made significant changes to public policy in education in 2010 as a part of our First to the Top agenda proposed by Gov Bredesen – a Democrat, followed by nightmarish changes to the teachers’ environment in 2011 by eliminating collective bargaining, tenure, and removing TEA from their seat at the table, all in the name of “reform.”

On top of all that we approved virtual schools, unlimited charter schools, put undue pressure on teachers and principals by adopting an assessment tool that is unnecessarily bureaucratic, adopted the Common Core, and are preparing to implement a new assessment called PARRC.  Now, we are attacking our teacher preparation programs by looking at putting artificial thresholds on ACT and SAT scores for students who wish to go through their respective College of Education.  I’ve said it before; we are giving our education system whiplash with these rapid-fire changes and creating massive confusion.  Who can blame more seasoned teachers from deciding to retire instead of continuing in a system that does not appreciate their significant achievement and experience in the classroom and will subject them to the latest reform experiment?

Perhaps the corporate robber barons of the reform movement need to be asked to leave the room and let the education professionals do their jobs.  I have complete faith in our school districts across our state if we can offer our help instead of the cram down policies that have little to no basis in fact or success.

 

Andy, John, and I want to thank Rep. Pitts for his time. Please follow us on twitter @TNEdReport and like us on Facebook.