free lunch

For 40 cents a meal, Colorado could feed a lot more middle school students

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
Vanessa Briones serves fruit to first graders during lunch at Laredo Elementary School on August 16, 2017, in Aurora, Colorado.

Colorado students who qualify for a reduced price lunch can get it for free, thanks to a state program that covers the extra cost. But that’s only through fifth grade.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, would extend this program to middle school students. State analysts estimate it would cover 1.4 million lunches at a cost of $564,000 in its first year.

In middle school, some Colorado school districts see a sharp decrease in the number of students eating school lunches, and school nutritionists don’t think that’s a coincidence or some adolescent preference.

To understand this, you need to know there are two kinds of free lunch in Colorado. The federal government picks up all the cost for families who earn very little, and some of the cost for families who earn a little more but not that much. Since 2008, the state has covered the difference for younger children, rendering their lunches free to them, but as those kids get older, that state benefit expires, and parents are expected to pay something. This change catches some families by surprise.

“Your financial situation has not changed, and the last thing you were thinking was that you would have to pay for lunch when your kid goes from fifth grade to sixth grade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans school district.

In Greeley, roughly 75 percent of elementary students eat school lunch but only 46 percent of middle school students do. At the same time, it’s not uncommon to hear students who come back from the weekend saying they’ve barely eaten since Friday, Bock said. Meanwhile, in the Cherry Creek School District, which provides its own lunch subsidies to students, middle school lunch participation goes down only 8 percent.

Bock said she’s also seeing an increase in the number of students who qualify for a reduced price lunch, as opposed to a free lunch. These are usually students who used to just pay for lunch but whose families are struggling more now, she said, not students from lower-income families whose parents are earning more money.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $31,980 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $45,510 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced price lunch, but students still have to pay 40 cents per meal.

For some families, that’s a struggle. In 2014, bipartisan legislation extended the original state program from second grade through fifth grade. Now, school nutritionists and advocates for children’s welfare want to expand it again to cover sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The bill authorizes the state to spend between $500,000 and $750,000 a year for these lunches.

“Just because you get to sixth grade doesn’t mean your parents’ wages go up,” Fields said.

Fields arrived at this bill in a slightly circuitous way. She was hearing from constituents – parents and children – about the practice of “lunch-shaming,” in which districts serve unappealing and less nutritious “alternative” meals to children whose parents owe lunch debt.

After a public outcry, Denver promised last year to serve all kids hot lunch and work out payment issues with parents. Private donations paid off outstanding lunch debt, allowing all kids to start the year fresh. Some states have gone further, with New Mexico banning the practice at the state level.

Fields said school administrators and nutritionists told her lunch-shaming isn’t a widespread problem in Colorado, but childhood hunger is. They told her the best way to reduce lunch-shaming is to pay for lunch for more kids.

Community activists say lunch-shaming still occurs, but they support this bill to expand access to free lunch as a first step that can gain bipartisan support. For her part, Fields said school officials have promised her they’ll work to change their policies.

Many advocates have always wanted this program to go all the way through 12th grade.

Fields would like to see that too, but probably not this session.

“We do things incrementally,” she said. “We try to be bipartisan and be successful.”

Youth members of Padres y Jovenes Unidos said they’ve been in the same shoes as the students this bill would help.

“This bill is important, at least for me, because I have younger siblings, and I don’t want to have to worry if they’re eating or not,” said Jasmine Gonzalez. “I just want them to have a good middle school experience, and that includes having the correct nutrition in their lunch.”

Gonzalez remembers being served an alternative lunch when she was younger – “that just made me feel like an outsider, that I wasn’t equal to the other students” – and she has friends who go hungry now.

“You can see the impact it has on them during the school day,” said Gonzalez, now a junior at DSST: College View. “They can’t focus on their work, and you hear their stomach growling.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the number of students who would benefit from this bill. The allocation would cover 1.4 million reduced-price lunches, not feed 1.4 million children.

Keep Out

What’s wrong with auditing all of Colorado’s education programs? Everything, lawmakers said.

Students at DSST: College View Middle School work on a reading assignment during an English Language Development class (Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post).

State Rep. Jon Becker pitched the idea as basic good governance. The state auditor’s office examines all sorts of state programs, but it never looks at education, the second largest expenditure in Colorado’s budget and a sector that touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. So let the auditor take a good, long look and report back to the legislature on which programs are working and which aren’t.

The State Board of Education hated this idea. So did Democrats. And Republicans. The House Education Committee voted 12-0 this week to reject Becker’s bill, which would have required a systematic review of all educational programs enacted by the legislature and in place for at least six years. Even an amendment that would have put the state board in the driver’s seat couldn’t save it.

As he made his case, Becker, a Republican from Fort Morgan in northeastern Colorado, was careful not to name any specific law he would like to see changed.

“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, he’s coming after my ox,’” he told the House Education Committee this week. “I know how this works. And that’s not the intent of this bill. It’s to look at all programs.”

But members of the committee weren’t buying it.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, pressed school board members who testified in favor of the bill to name a law or program they were particularly excited to “shed some light on.” If there’s a law that’s a problem, he asked, wouldn’t it make more sense to drill down just on that law?

They tried to demur.

“I feel like you’re trying to get us to say, we really want you to go after 191 or we really want you to go after charter schools,” said Cathy Kipp, a school board member in the Poudre School District who also serves on the board of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “That’s not what this is about.”

Kipp said committee members seemed to be “scared that if their pet programs get looked at, they’ll be eliminated. Why be scared? Shouldn’t we want these programs to be looked at?”

But proponents’ own testimony seemed to suggest some potential targets, including Senate Bill 191, Colorado’s landmark teacher effectiveness law.

As Carrie Warren-Gully, president of the school boards association, argued for the benefits of an independent evaluation of education programs, she offered up an example: The schedules of administrators who have to evaluate dozens of teachers under the law are more complicated than “a flight plan at DIA,” and districts have to hire additional administrators just to manage evaluations, cutting into the resources available for students, she said.

The debate reflected ongoing tensions between the state and school districts over Colorado’s complex system for evaluating schools and teachers and holding them accountable for student achievement. The systematic review bill was supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Lawmakers repeatedly told school officials that if they have problems with particular parts of existing legislation, they should come to them for help and will surely find allies.

Exasperated school officials responded by pointing to the past failure of legislation that would have tweaked aspects of evaluations or assessments — but the frustration was mutual.

“Just because people don’t agree with one specific approach doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to come to the table,” said committee chair Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat.

There were other concerns, including the possibility that this type of expansive evaluation would prove expensive and create yet another bureaucracy.

“When have we ever grown government to shrink it?” asked state Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “There’s a paradox here.”

And state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican who is also a former teacher and school superintendent, questioned whether the auditor’s office has the expertise to review education programs. He also asked what standard would be applied to evaluate programs that are implemented differently in more than 170 school districts across the state.

“If it’s effective more often than not, will they keep it?” Wilson asked. “If it doesn’t work in a third of them, it’s gone?”

State Board of Education members had similar questions when they decided earlier this year that this bill was a bad idea. Many of Colorado’s education laws don’t have clear measures of success against which their performance can be evaluated.

The READ Act, for example, stresses the importance of every child learning to read well in early elementary school and outlines the steps that schools have to take to measure reading ability and provide interventions to help students who are falling behind their peers.

But how many children need to improve their reading and by how much for the READ Act to be deemed effective or efficient? That’s not outlined in the legislation.

Proponents of the bill said outside evaluators could identify best practices and spread them to other districts, but state board members said they already monitor all of these programs on an ongoing basis and already produce thousands of pages of reports on each of these programs that go to the legislature every year. In short, they say they’re on the case.

“The state board, I can assure you, are very devoted and intent to make sure that we follow, monitor, and watch the progress of any programs that go through our department and make sure they’re enacted in the best way possible within the schools,” board member Jane Goff said.

safe bet

Disputed money in Colorado education budget will go to school safety measures

DENVER, CO--JUNE 167TH 2009--The Colorado State Capitol Wednesday afternoon. THE DENVER POST/ANDY CROSS

Colorado lawmakers will take $7 million in “extra” education money they’ve been wrangling over and put it toward bills that improve school safety.

The money isn’t officially designated for a specific bill, but $7 million happens to be the amount of money that state Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, has requested in a bill that would provide grants to schools that want to buy radio technology that allows them to communicate more directly with emergency responders. Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing last month, administrators from rural school districts that already use the hand-held radios said they would be an immense help in a school shooting, but they also get daily use for more mundane problems, like dealing with broken-down buses and irate parents.

The bill calls for the Department of Public Safety to make $7 million in annual grants available to schools for five years. Grant recipients would be able to use the money to provide training in how to communicate effectively with first responders in an emergency, to update school crisis management plans, and to make improvements in their communications systems.

The bill doesn’t identify a specific funding source. The compromise reached late last week allows the money to go toward a range of school safety needs, not just the radio technology bill.

Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the House had been fighting over how to adjust the 2017-18 appropriation for K-12 education after roughly 900 fewer students enrolled in Colorado schools than had been forecast.

Democrats had wanted to keep total spending the same and give schools a little bit extra per student. Republicans wanted to keep per-pupil spending the same and put the extra money into the general fund.

The debate over an amount that represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the state’s $6.6 billion education budget was symbolic of the larger budget debate hanging over this legislative session.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, had pushed for more money to go to schools, but she said this week that the deal is a reasonable compromise.

“It keeps the money in schools and supports schools in ways that they’re really struggling,” she said.

The state Senate and House have both signed off on the compromise proposal, which comes as the Joint Budget Committee prepares to discuss the 2018-19 education budget.