You say potato: Losing track of low income/economically disadvantaged students

WBUR’s Max Larkin’s piece on the way Massachusetts has changed counting children living in poverty, How Massachusetts Lost Count of Its Poor Students, was published yesterday. While Massachusetts educators are paying attention, this is a topic that deserves much broader discussion as the unintended consequences are substantial.

In 2015, the Commonwealth began recalculating the number of students living in poverty based upon a new metric which included enrollment in programs like SNAP. Using this new way of counting and classifying the needs of students meant the use a new label, “economically disadvantaged”, replacing the term “low income”. However, more than a change in labeling data collection resulted.

In Lowell prior to the new measures, the average (and I stress the use of the word AVERAGE) poverty rate district-wide was in the 75.1% (2013-14 DESE Select Population data). In the particular school in which I taught, that rate was closer to 85% (84.9%). Using the new means of measurement, in 2014-15, Lowell’s District calculation of students in poverty, now referenced as “economically disadvantaged” was reduced to 49%. So according to the new measure, over the summer break about one-third of Lowell Public School’s students disappeared from the count of children who lived in poverty.

Why does this matter? When we look at student growth and achievement, there are factors within the school and classroom over which educators have control but there are also factors which influence student growth over which educators have little to no control. One of those factors is the impact of living in poverty. This is a huge reason school districts make every attempt to provide students who are low income or economically disadvantaged with additional services. Such services range from wrap-around services for health and housing security to additional educational opportunities like books for home enjoyment and field trips.

As an educator, it did not make sense to me that over the summer break one-third of our students were suddenly no longer in need of such extra supports. Certainly no one could imagine that over the summer months about a third of Lowell’s students for whom poverty was a factor had suddenly become financially stable.

Poverty levels are often a consideration for needs-based grants. Here’s an example: In Lowell, the United Teachers of Lowell applied for participation in the FirstBook Books on Wheels free book distribution program in 2015. To qualify, the District needs-based percentage had to be 70%. Under the new calculation using CEP, Lowell’s 49.1% economically disadvantaged calculation would have disqualified our students and their families from the benefits this wonderful program: books to add to a home library. Luckily our Title I office had actual data which did allow us to qualify for the program.

Which makes me wonder: what other needs-based programs are our children living in poverty missing because a district or school no longer qualifies based upon economically disadvantaged data collected by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education? Are our children who are living in poverty missing the additional services needed to help them be as successful as their more affluent peers based upon a falsely “improved” low income number?

When the Commonwealth falsely represents students living in poverty based on a flawed new metric, the consequences have a significant and real impact on our most vulnerable students.

If you don’t like the numbers, just change the criteria

There is so much to digest from last evening’s Funding Forum. So I’m just going to start with one aspect of Massachusetts school funding – the poverty level calculations.

Here’s a bit of recent history. In 2014, the year prior to when I retired, the poverty level in Lowell overall was 75.1%. It was called what it is: Low Income and was based on free and reduced lunch statistics as explained in this report from Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

When I retired in 2015, the Low Income Level in Lowell, was re-tooled as “Economically Disadvantaged”. In 2015, the number of students considered economically disadvantaged in Lowell was reported to be 49.0%. One would think the world would be knocking at Lowell’s door to find out how magically 25% of the public school student population was no longer economically disadvantaged. But, the world is not.

There was no magic solution. The same children I taught who needed supports because they came to us from low income families and socio-economically disadvantaged environments, simply moved up a grade level and experienced those same socio-economic traumas. This time, the supports were fewer. The change in counting these children was caused by the Commonwealth’s redefinition of how low income status should be determined. Starting in 2015, the determining factors became participation in SNAP, DCF foster care, transitional assistance for families, and Medicaid (MassHealth).

How does this impact school funding? To begin with, the Foundation Budget allocations contain a calculation to support low income students. The low income multiplier is applied to a community’s low income population to assist with supports these children may require in order to be on an equitable playing field with children who do not experience poverty. So when the Commonwealth changed the definition of poverty so that fewer students were considered economically disadvantaged, the amount of funding available for support also decreased.

This is some pretty fancy footwork with data and statistics isn’t it? Correcting the calculations for low income support was one of the issues directly addressed by the Foundation Budget Review Commission 3 years ago. It is also one of the many reasons why the Foundation Budget must be overhauled this year.

Our children who need support, whether that means additional academic support or extra-curricular opportunities before/after school, or essential wrap-around services such as programs that address health needs and food insecurities, cannot wait. Changing the definition doesn’t solve the problem. It just makes things more difficult.