The way Indiana tracks the number of students who are living in poverty is changing in an effort to make sure the data is accurate.
The new tracking method isn’t expected to change the state’s count of how many families live in poverty, which currently ranges from 19 to 63 percent in local school districts, but it would allow state officials to check the numbers.
Indiana lawmakers want to be sure they’re accurately tracking the number of students in poverty across the state, which is why they will start using their own numbers to count those students beginning in 2014.
As part of the state’s budget, legislators approved using Indiana’s textbook assistance program to track the number of Indiana students in poverty at the start of the 2014-15 school year. Indiana’s textbook assistance program covers the cost of textbooks, which can run between $25 and several hundred dollars, for elementary, middle and high school students from families who fall within 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means their income can’t exceed $38,202.
Until now the state has used the number of students signed up for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, which pays for all or part of the cost of a student’s meal based on their family’s income, to follow student poverty. But because that’s a federal program, state officials including the Indiana Department of Education had no way of checking the numbers for accuracy, State Sen. Luke Kenley,
Kenley wants state agencies to be able to check the textbook assistance numbers to be sure only students who qualify are enrolled. That way the state will know with certainty that school districts’ poverty rates, which are used to help determine schools’ federal funding, are accurate, he said.
Using the textbook assistance program instead of the free and reduced-lunch program shouldn’t cause area school districts’ poverty rates to rise or fall. Food service coordinators and school counselors typically sign students up for the textbook assistance program when they register them for the free and reduced-price lunch program.
And because the qualifications are identical, nearly every student who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch also qualifies for textbook assistance, Clark-Pleasant and Franklin food service directors Kim Combs and Jill Overton said. That’s why school officials don’t expect the numbers to change much when the poverty rate is based on the textbook assistance program.
But state lawmakers believe the change will give schools more accurate poverty rates because state officials can review the textbook assistance program to ensure families living at or near the poverty level are the only ones receiving aid, Kenley said.
“If we go to the standard of the textbook measure, which is an Indiana-only measure, they can better verify if it works,” Kenley said.
The state needs poverty rates to be accurate because they’re used to determine funding for schools statewide, including how much federal funding schools receive based on the number of students from low-income families they have enrolled each year. That money is used to pay for teachers and classroom assistants.
Franklin schools also has used the money to pay for a summer kindergarten camp that prepares students for the lessons they’ll be taught during their first year of school.
“We just want to make sure that the money that is dedicated to that purpose is following an accurate estimate of the number of people who truly qualify in that category. And by using the federal number we are not allowed to verify that number,” Kenley said.