Metro

State revises count of impoverished students

Altered method of counting has fewer deemed in poverty

Paul Dakin, superintendent of Revere public schools, said the new formula could overlook poor immigrant families who are not tapping welfare programs.
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Paul Dakin, superintendent of Revere public schools, said the new formula could overlook poor immigrant families who are not tapping welfare programs.

Massachusetts has scrapped a decades-old method for defining low-income students in public schools, resulting in a dramatic decline in the number considered to be living in poverty, according to a Globe review of state data.

Now, less than half of Boston school students are regarded as being from impoverished homes, compared with the previous figure of about three-quarters. Chelsea, Lawrence, and other cities also saw big drops. Statewide rates dropped, but less dramatically.

The new approach deems students “economically disadvantaged” if their families receive food stamps or other welfare benefits. Previously, the state used income reported by families on applications for free school lunches to identify “low-income” students.

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The new calculations are expected to lead to major changes by the Legislature in the way state aid for needy students is distributed to local schools and could even affect how much school systems receive in state reimbursements for construction projects.

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More broadly, the data raise questions about whether some schools should be performing at higher levels if indeed they have fewer poor students than previously thought.

But some educators question whether the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has come up with the best methodology to identify poor students.

Paul Dakin, superintendent of Revere public schools, said he worries that relying only on data from welfare programs could overlook the large number of poor immigrant families who are not tapping those programs, either out of pride or because they are here illegally and fear deportation.

“These folks live under the radar, but we are still legally responsible to educate them,” Dakin said.

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Only 37.4 percent of students in Revere have been designated economically disadvantaged, down from 77.8 percent of students who were deemed low income.

Across the state, 26.3 percent of the 956,000 students enrolled in public schools are considered economically disadvantaged, compared with 38.3 percent who had been previously deemed low income. The education department will present the new findings to its board Tuesday.

For decades, Massachusetts and other states considered families who qualified for free or reduced-price lunches as the standard for measuring poverty. But many school systems, such as Boston and more than a dozen others in Massachusetts, no longer ask families to fill out applications to receive the perk because they are participating in a special federal program that allows them to offer free meals to all students, regardless of income.

The intention of the universal free meal program is to increase participation and eliminate the stigma, but it has caused Massachusetts and other states to grapple with finding a new way to measure student poverty.

Jeff Wulfson, Massachusetts deputy education commissioner, said there is no perfect data set.

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“There is no single definition of what it means to be poor,” Wulfson said. “These are all surrogate measures.”

‘These folks live under the radar, but we are still legally responsible to educate them.’

Paul Dakin, superintendent of Revere public schools, expressing concern that changes in methodology for counting disadvantaged students could harm poor immigrant families 

He emphasized that the challenges any school faces in educating students remains the same; it’s just the way students are being counted that has changed.

The new methodology is based mostly on families receiving food stamps, but also considers participation in other programs, such as foster care, Medicaid, or transitional assistance for families with dependent children.

The state cautions against comparing MCAS scores, graduation rates, and other performance measures generated for “economically disadvantaged” students against previous data for “low-income” students because the two student groups are significantly different. That will make it hard for the state to judge whether schools are making progress with impoverished students as it rolls out the new methodology.

Massachusetts is at the forefront in changing its methodology, said Mike Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonprofit that tracks education policy trends. He said many states are looking to develop a methodology similar to the one Massachusetts adopted, but are getting legal opinions on whether their state education departments have the right to use data from their welfare systems.

“There are a lot of family privacy issues,” said Griffith, while other states are weighing whether the approach is too stringent. “Many states err on the side of identifying too many rather than too few students.”

Privacy concerns deterred Massachusetts education officials from tapping state Department of Revenue data.

Whatever individual states decide, Griffith said, will probably have far-reaching consequences on research into the performance of low-income students. Gone will be a fairly consistent definition of low-income students among all the states, making it more difficult to conduct long-term national studies.

But relying on welfare participation might more accurately identify schools that have the highest concentration of students in greatest need and may more accurately reflect child poverty data collected by the US Census Bureau, some education policy experts said.

There have been wide gulfs between the census numbers and free-lunch participation numbers. In Boston, for instance, the US Census Bureau considers 27 percent of all children living in the city to be in poverty. Yet about three-quarters of students in the city’s school system had qualified for free or reduced-price lunches before switching to universal free meals.

Wulfson said he doubts families were providing false information on the lunch applications, noting that the state periodically audits the forms and that in some cases families living above the poverty line qualified for the perk.

State education officials said they will be recalibrating the threshold for what it considers a high-poverty district based on the new data. The high-poverty standard used to be districts with about 70 percent or more of students classified as low-income, but now it could be as low as 40 percent of students deemed economically disadvantaged.

Officials in many school systems worry about the financial implications of the change.

“We certainly don’t want to undercount the population and lose money because of it,” said Gerry McCue, executive director for administration and finance for the Chelsea schools.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said Boston’s school system also raised concerns about losing state aid.

“We have been assured by the state that this will not happen,” McDonough said in a statement.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of students enrolled in public schools statewide. The number is 956,000.