More funding directed to economically disadvantaged students helps them do better in school and in life. Gov. Nathan Deal’s Education Reform Commission recognized this and directed extra funds to school districts for these students in its proposed revision to Georgia’s funding formula for K-12 schools. This recognition is a step forward, but it falls far short of meeting their needs.
Over 62 percent, or more than 1 million, of Georgia’s public school children are considered economically disadvantaged today because they participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, the benchmark used nationally to identify these students. Students receive free lunches if their families’ income is up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $26,000 for a family of three. Students get a reduced price lunch if their families earn between 131 and 185 percent of the poverty level, or up to about $37,000 for a family of three.
The commission’s recommendations call for more restrictive criteria to determine who qualifies as low-income to reflect changes to the federal lunch program. Under the new criteria, students will be considered economically disadvantaged if they:
Live in a family receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits, also known as food stamps
Live in a family receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits
Are identified as homeless
Are identified as living in foster care
Are identified as migrant
Under these proposed criteria, the percentage of Georgia’s students counted as economically disadvantaged is cut nearly in half, to just 35 percent from about 63 percent.
The proposed criteria create much lower income caps than is now the case. A family of three in Georgia can earn no more than about $9,400 annually to qualify for the TANF program, which provides cash benefits. The state also limits SNAP eligibility to families with incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty line, well below the threshold in many other states including Florida, North Carolina and Texas.
The commission’s recommendations exclude entirely students identified now whose family incomes fall between 131 and 185 percent of the poverty level. These children and their families still face economic hardships including food insecurity, residential instability, lack of health insurance and disconnected utilities due to inability to pay. These challenges harm children’s well-being and can negatively impact their success in the classroom.
The General Assembly can use a broader definition of economically disadvantaged students to ensure all children whose families struggle financially get the support needed to succeed in school. One option is for local districts to collect basic income data on students’ families, so that they can determine if children qualify as low-income under current definitions.
The supplemental funding allocated to economically disadvantaged students is low at $232 annually or $1.29 per day. This is likely not enough to provide the services that help these students succeed. Those include small class sizes, more time to learn through longer school days or years, and one-on-one or small-group instruction.
The General Assembly can increase the supplemental funds for these students to at least $600 to improve their chances for success. This is the amount lawmakers would allocate if the commission stuck with the funding weight it first considered for economically disadvantaged students. Using this weight also sets Georgia roughly in line with the national average for this type of extra support. Given what’s at stake for them and the state’s need to prepare students to be skilled members of the workforce, this is an investment worth making.
(Claire Suggs is senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a think tank focused on advancing funding for social services.)