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Wanted: an accurate measure of student poverty

A change in how Massachusetts counts low-income students in public school districts has resulted in sharply lower reported rates of poor kids, according to a Globe report Monday. That decrease could have dire consequences for the funding that school districts receive from the state and federal government, which is based in part on the number of poor students. That’s why state education authorities need to get this measure right, and comb through different sources of data to come up with the most meaningful and accurate figures. An inadequate metric will translate into less urgency and fewer funds to address critical needs of the low-income population.

Massachusetts had previously relied on the number of families who applied for free school lunches to determine the number of students in poverty. Based on that longstanding metric, 77 percent of students in the Boston schools were designated as low-income in 2013. But when the federal government introduced a free-meal program for all kids, regardless of income, a couple of years ago — thus eliminating the need for families to apply for free lunches — the state had to come up with an alternative way to calculate the number of low-income students. The new metric — called “economically disadvantaged” students — is based on the number of kids in families who receive public benefits: food stamps, foster care, or certain MassHealth programs, including Medicaid. With the new measure, only 49 percent of Boston students were classified as economically disadvantaged.


But, for many complicated reasons, not every family that is eligible for public benefits applies for them, and it’s reasonable to question the accuracy of the new figures. That’s why education officials should go beyond participation in welfare programs to identify poor students. They can tap into self-reported data by asking families to fill out forms like those that were used for free lunches. And they should also use data from the state’s Department of Revenue, provided they can address privacy concerns. Aggregate data on income levels, by community, should be readily available, and would not compromise individual privacy.

An inaccurate calculation of student poverty will eventually leave financially strained schools vulnerable to funding cuts. It ought to be a priority for state education authorities to strengthen their methodology for finding and counting the poor. In an age of ubiquitous data, it’s critical for the Commonwealth to pinpoint our neediest populations.


Ideas: Who’s poor? Depends how you measure it