New School Meal Figures Reflect Increased Child Poverty

Monday, March 19, 2012 at 10:54 PM by

New data released Monday by the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) show yet another increase in the percentage of students meeting the income requirement to receive free or reduced-price school meals in Wisconsin’s public schools – marking the eighth consecutive year that the percentage has increased. The DPI data for the 2011-12 school year show that 353,339 students in the state were identified as being eligible for free- or reduced-price meals an increase of 7,155 students or 2.1 percent compared to the previous school year.

We’ve noted on previous occasions that Census Bureau data show that child poverty has  increased sharply in Wisconsin in recent years, but the most recent Census figures are from 2010. The school meal statistics were collected in October 2011, and although they don’t conclusively prove that poverty is still growing, they certainly reflect the long increase in economic hardship and indicate that it does not appear to be abating.

The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Evers, said in a DPI press release today that,“there is no question that families in Wisconsin are hurting economically.”   He added, “Poverty and hunger are cruel facts of our difficult economy and can have a harsh impact on student learning.”

Evers took the opportunity to criticize the last budget bill:  “The 2011-13 state budget for education funding was absolutely the wrong place to cut because these cuts diminish opportunities for our kids and jeopardize their future and ours.”

In contrast to any of the 2010 Census data that we have seen to date, the new statistics on free and reduced price school meals provide detailed local figures. (See pages 3-10 of the DPI release.)   DPI has prepared a detailed map of the data, which helps illustrate the relatively high rates of poverty in many rural areas, particularly in northern and western Wisconsin.

Of course, poverty is also common in many of the state’s urban areas, and especially in Milwaukee. The new statistics show that free or reduced-price meal eligibility increased to 83.4% in Milwaukee Public Schools in October, compared to 82.6% of students eligible in 2010-11.

In the DPI release today, Superintendent Evers noted that state policymakers could mitigate the sharp discrepancies between districts by reforming the way Wisconsin funds its schools. He pointed out that the “Fair Funding for Our Future” he recommended last year would change the distribution of school equalization aid by accounting for household income in the allocation formula.

Additional information, including a list of free or reduced-price meal eligibility rates for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, is available in the complete news release.  A link to a spreadsheet of free and reduced-price meal data can be found in the DPI newsroom

Jon Peacock

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