Indiana lawmakers look for better ways to identify students living in poverty

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Indiana lawmakers, facing criticism that they are underestimating the number of students living in poverty, are looking for a better way to identify these children.

The Indiana General Assembly’s interim study committee on tax and fiscal policy asked for ideas from the public and heard over two hours of testimony on Tuesday.

Some schools saw funding drop this year as fewer students qualified as low-income under the state’s new poverty measure. While Indiana previously used eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch to calculate extra funding for districts, lawmakers decided in 2015 to shift to the number of students in foster care, or whose families receive food stamps or welfare payments.

That’s a narrower—and poorer—group of students, which previously led some experts to say lawmakers could be undercounting students. And fewer students who qualify means less money for schools. Lawmakers, however, cushioned districts’ losses for two years by increasing the amount schools receive per student living in poverty.

In 2019, the state allocated more than $750 million to schools with students identified as living in poverty. In 2021, it’s expected to spend around $690 million.

It will likely be another two years before lawmakers take any new action. But ideas at Tuesday’s hearing included counting students who receive Medicaid or whose parents report a salary below a certain level on their state tax returns. Robert Toutkoushian, a University of Georgia professor who previously worked at Indiana University, said either of those options could simplify counting and ensure that families and schools aren’t affecting the numbers.

The state could also return to a tiered system, which could weigh additional factors, such as living in a single-parent home. Or lawmakers could add a measurement of area’s poverty or home values to the funding calculation.

Few poor families receive welfare, so Indiana is largely relying on food stamps to count how many students in poverty schools serve. But the maximum income for families to qualify for food stamps is much lower than it is to qualify for discounted school meals. And only about 83 percent of Hoosiers who are eligible for food stamps received them in 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Amber Seibert, a teacher in Washington Township Schools, said some of her students have families who are worried about being deported and therefore don’t apply for federal programs. (In August, the Trump administration announced that immigrants who receive government benefits could have a harder time getting legal residency status—federal courts have blocked this rule.)

Seibert said she’s seen the impact that free meals and school supports have on her students—noting that “for many of my students who are food insecure,” Fall Break meant going hungry.

This debate is taking place as the state grapples with how to fairly fund schools. Research shows that students who grow up in poverty often enter school behind their more affluent peers.

Indiana is among 11 states that use the federal programs to count poverty, NCSL data showed. Most states—32—still use free and reduced-price lunch, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But that number has gone up since the federal government allows entire schools to receive free lunches if 40% or more of its student body qualifies for subsidized meals, according to testimony Tuesday.

The handful of remaining states rely on annual data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which experts said can measure poverty by neighborhood but may get complicated if students are able to attend a school outside of their designated district.

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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