Schools would maintain aid for free meals

The Education Committee heard two bills Feb. 8 that are intended to maintain state aid to schools for free student meals.

LB1004, introduced by Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook, and LB1065, introduced by Cedar Rapids Sen. Kate Sullivan, would help Nebraska schools implement a federal provision that allows schools with high poverty rates to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students without the need for an application. Schools that qualify for the provision have at least 40 percent of their students in poverty.

Currently, students qualify for free meals if they already participate in programs like Head Start or by submitting an income-based meal application. Schools that participate in the federal provision are not required to collect those applications, resulting in fewer recorded recipients of the program. This is problematic for schools, as state aid is calculated, in part, on the percentage of students in this program.

Both bills would increase by 10 percent the number of students included in that calculation for schools that implement the provision, helping schools maintain their state funding. LB1004 would offer schools the option of using that multiplier or the number of students who qualified for free meals in the most recent fiscal year for which data is available, whichever is greater.

LB1004 also would require the state Department of Education to promote the federal provision to eligible schools and help them implement it.

LB1065 would change a provision allowing parents voluntarily to provide information—other than on a school lunch application—that would determine a child’s qualification for free or reduced-priced meals. Sullivan said schools that implement the provision are not required to collect financial information but, if parents wish to provide it, the information also can be used to qualify a student for other financial benefits such as fee waivers, scholarships and transportation for option-enrolled students.

Cook said the provision reduces the administrative burden on schools and leads to better nourished children. It is being underused because schools with high poverty rates fear they will lose state funding if they implement the program under current statute, she said.

“It is imperative that we enable schools to implement this eligibility provision without adversely impacting their state aid,” Cook said.

James Goddard, director of economic justice programs at Nebraska Appleseed, testified in support of both bills. He said more than 100 schools in Nebraska are eligible for the federal provision but only 5 percent of eligible students participate in the program so far. Goddard said the provision in LB1004 allowing schools to choose between a multiplier and data from an earlier fiscal year when calculating their state aid would be critical in helping more schools to implement the program.

“While a multiplier alone might function well for higher poverty schools, perhaps for Omaha Public Schools, for example, it may not provide the same level of poverty allowance for schools with a lower poverty level, thereby discouraging schools from taking up the program,” he said.

Connie Knoche, chief financial officer for Omaha Public Schools, also testified in support of both bills. She said six Omaha elementary schools have implemented the federal provision and another 20 or 30 likely would implement it under the proposed bills.

Julia Tse, speaking on behalf of Voices for Children in Nebraska, testified in support of LB1004. She said federal data shows that for every 10 students qualified through Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or other factors, six more otherwise would qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.

No one spoke in opposition to the bills and the committee took no immediate action on them.

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