Tuesday, February 21, 2006


A centerpiece of the claim for more funding by the Omaha Public Schools is that their students are more impoverished and so it costs more to give them equal educational opportunities with richer kids.

OPS paints a picture of thousands of its inner-city pupils trudging to school across the snow in tattered rags tied around their feet, with nothing but cracker crumbs in their pantries, and days, even weeks, going by with no meals served in their homes.

Well, maybe they’re not THAT melodramatic. But they do bring up the fact that they have more kids whose family incomes are low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches than kids in the suburban districts OPS is trying to take over.

OPS is reporting that 20,043 pupils, or 42.9% of the total student body, qualify for free school lunches this school year, and another 4,780, or 10.2%, qualify for reduced-price meals. That’s over 53%. So yes, it does sound like there is widespread poverty in OPS.

But here are two points to ponder, that might be worth investigating:

1. OPS’ level of poverty may be nowhere near as severe as the numbers imply.

The federal poverty guidelines that are used to determine which children get free or partially-subsidized school lunches set the same income ceilings for every school district in the country. Local differences in the cost of living aren’t factored in. So even though Omaha has a substantially cheaper cost of living than, say, New York City, the income guidelines are the same here as there. And here they are: a family of four making $35,798 per year or less gets reduced-price school meals, and a family of four making $25,155 or less gets free meals. You can see the chart from the Federal Register on
www.usoe.k12.ut.us/curr/ap/test_fee/Eligibility.pdf Somebody making $35,798, working 2,000 hours a year (40 hours a week x 50 weeks), is making $17.90 an hour. It’s just hard to believe that we taxpayers are supposed to consider that person in poverty.

2. It is possible that half or more of the $26.5 million OPS spends on free or reduced-price lunches is going to people who make more money than the guidelines allow.

An excellent report on school lunch fraud in South Sioux City, Neb., by NETV’s Statewide Interactive report a few years ago revealed that in OPS, a random spot-check of parents who’d claimed income levels qualified for free or reduced-price lunches revealed that 59% of them couldn’t, or wouldn’t, prove they qualified.
The implication was that they were fibbing to get the freebies. At the time, OPS listed 20,000 students with the subsidies. Since 8,000 of them were in families that were already receiving food stamps, those applications for school lunch subsidies were automatically qualified as truthful, since they’d already jumped through governmental hoops to get the food stamps. Of the remaining 12,000, the feds required OPS to spot-check audit 3% for accuracy, so OPS sent that 3% a letter asking them to prove, or confirm, that they met the income guidelines. The letter went to 370 families. Of those, 217 did not respond, implying that they were fudging, and were taken off the rolls. That’s 59% of those questioned. Now, of course, they might never have gotten the letter, could have been scared, or could have made honest mistakes. But if that 59% figure held up across the board, then more than 7,000 children might be receiving the subsidies unfairly. According to
www.ops.org/budget on p. 108, OPS budgeted for more than $7 million in local funds and $15 million in federal funds to meet overall projected expenses of $26.5 million for the school food program this school year. Remembering that about one-third of the kids are getting food stamps and are prequalified as bona fide recipients, and that OPS gives a free breakfast to any child who seeks it regardless of income guidelines, if you really put a sharp pencil to it, that’s more than $10 million worth of food that may be given free or at reduced prices to children whose parents might really be able to foot the bill.

I sure hope that isn’t true. Far be it from me to snatch food from the mouths of innocent children. It’s not fun to be so Grinch-y and Scrooge-ish as to point this out. But the school lunch numbers are so consequential in matters of winning federal grants . . . and school-finance equity lawsuits . . . that it just cries out to be thoroughly investigated.

What’s that they say? There’s no such thing as a free you-know-what.

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