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— State Sen. Alan Clark, a Republican from Lonsdale, proposed bill SB349 last week which would tie National School Lunch state categorical funding to a school district’s reading readiness. Now, before you start thinking he’s trying to deny children their school lunches, he’s not. The categorical funding program is not the same as the National School Lunch Act program, which covers meals.

The school lunch act helps low-income kids have access to meals while they are at school. Students qualify for free lunches if their families make less than 130 percent of the poverty line. That’s $27,014 for a family of three, according to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. Reduced-priced lunches are available for kids in families who are at up to 185 percent of the poverty line. That is $38,443, AACF says.

About 290,000 of the approximately 477,000 (61 percent) public school students in Arkansas qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

The categorical funding is supplemental state funding and comes from state sales tax revenue. It supports educational services to improve outcomes for the same low-income kids. The number of kids who receive free and reduced-price meals determines how much of the funding is available to a district.

In 2017, state school districts received more than $225 million in categorical funding, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research. The funding is disbursed at a per-student rate. That rate depends on which of three tiers a school district falls under; the tiers are determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

To give you an idea of the financial impact, for the five years ending in the 2017-2018 school year, more than a billion dollars was paid out to almost all of the school districts in the state, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

Also, consider this information from a May 2018 AACF report:

“The lowest tier of funding is for districts that have less than 70 percent of students living in poverty. Those districts get $526 per eligible student. The middle tier includes districts that have 70-90 percent of students living in poverty. These schools receive $1,051 per eligible student. The highest tier is for districts with over 90 percent of their students living in poverty. They receive the most, at $1,576 per student. Very few districts (around 4 percent) fall into the highest NSL poverty funding category.”

These funds can be used for tutoring and professional development, not to fund food programs, according to the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research. Clark is recommending that districts lose categorical funding if a school’s reading readiness levels fall below a certain percentage

According to the bill, which Clark filed Feb. 18, a public school district’s national school lunch funding would be reduced if less than 70 percent of its students, in grades 3-10, qualified as “ready” or “exceeding” on the state’s reading assessments.

After two consecutive years of failing to meet the reading standard, the school’s funding would drop one level lower than it would usually receive. After three consecutive years, the school would be ineligible for the categorical funding program until the school increased the percentage of students whose reading qualifies as “ready” or “exceeding.”

So, the logic here is that districts with poor students who have poor reading readiness results should have funding cut for educational services that are designed to improve their outcomes.

Clark told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that it would likely be rare for a school district to ever lose money under his bill. “If the district’s reading achievement decreases one year, its teachers must complete training for reading education,” the article said.

“The financial penalties wouldn’t begin until consecutive years of declining achievement.”

So if this would be a rare occurrence to ever lose money under the bill, what’s the point of bothering with the legislation? Aren’t there already measures in place to address poor performance in public schools?

Doesn’t the Arkansas Department of Education already identify academically distressed schools due chronically low student test scores? Isn’t reading factored into that equation? And aren’t those schools monitored and plans put in place to get the schools off the list?

I could be looking at this wrong — and if I am please give me some feedback — but, if the Education Department monitors academic progress and intervenes when there are problems, there is a standing committee devoted to academic distress, and accountability measures are in place, why add one more layer of bureaucracy?

(Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at melsheawilson@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.)

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