California unable to determine if charter schools are meeting students’ nutritional needs.
By Alexandra Zavis and Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/9qzsRk
CHARTERS AREN’T REQUIRED TO PROVIDE FREE OR OR LOW-COST FOOD TO NEEDY STUDENTS.
THE GROWTH OF THE SYSTEM HAS RAISED INTEREST IN THE ISSUE.
AVAILABLE INFORMATION IS TOO SPOTTY FOR THE STATE TO KNOW HOW MANY CHARTER STUDENTS NEED THE AID OR ARE GETTING IT.
October 22, 2010 - A state audit to determine whether public charter school students are receiving nutritional meals on campus could not be fully completed because government databases are not reliable or detailed enough, officials said Thursday.
Although the report found that many California charter schools provide meals to their students, state auditor Elaine Howle said it was not possible to determine how many of the students were eligible for or participating in subsidized lunch and breakfast programs.
Charter schools — independently run, publicly financed campuses — are exempt from the federal law requiring public schools to provide needy students with at least one nutritionally adequate meal a day at a reduced price or for free.
Advocates for low-income families are concerned that this could force some parents to choose between the educational and nutritional needs of their children.
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) said she requested the audit in January because the number of charter schools is growing, and research has shown a link between academic performance and student health.
The audit identified 815 charter schools that were active in California in April. According to Department of Education records, 451 were participating in the subsidized breakfast or lunch programs and 151 did not offer meals because they provide independent study courses or online instruction.
Auditors surveyed the remaining 213 charter schools and received 133 responses. Of those, 46 reported that they provide meals, either by having staff prepare and deliver food or by hiring vendors to do so. The cost of the meals ranged from 50 cents to $5, with some schools using their own resources to offer reduced-price or free meals to qualifying students.
Many of the 39 schools that said they do not provide meals said they believed their students' nutritional needs were being met because most brought lunch from home.
Some schools said they did not have the facilities to prepare, deliver and serve meals. Others cited a lack of staff and funding to operate a meal program or cope with the administrative requirements of enrolling students for subsidized breakfasts and lunches.
"As schools of choice, parents are fully aware of what the school can and cannot offer," said Colin Miller, vice president of policy for the California Charter Schools Assn.
George Manolo-LeClair, senior director of legislation for California Food Policy Advocates, said he was heartened by the number of charter schools that provide meals. But he said he still wants to know how many low-income children attend schools that do not offer such programs.
"The expectation for households to provide meals is just not possible for some households that do not have those resources," he said.
In a letter responding to the audit, Chief Deputy Supt. of Public Instruction Geno Flores said the education department would take steps to reduce reporting errors and better distinguish between traditional and charter schools in its databases.
Report: State fails to track free meals at charter schools
October 22, 2010 | A report released yesterday found that the state Department of Education has failed to keep reliable data on the number of charter school students in federal school breakfast and lunch programs.
The report from the California State Auditor aimed to find out how many charter schools in the state were participating in federal school meal programs and how many students were eligible, but the department's databases provided unclear results.
“In investigating how the nutritional needs of charter school students are being met, so that the Legislature can make future decisions regarding the health and education of California's children, we were hampered by a lack of data,” the report reads.
Under the National School Lunch Act, qualifying low-income children who attend traditional schools are required to receive at least one free or reduced price meal. But charter schools, under the Charter Schools Act of 1992, are exempt from that federal law. Participating in the federal breakfast or lunch programs is optional.
It was a concern over the impact of this exemption that prompted Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, to request an audit.
“As the charter network continues to grow, much remains unknown about the nutrition programs in California charter schools,” Brownley said in a letter to the audit committee [PDF].
There are over 800 charter schools in California with about 341,000 students, and every year over the past decade has brought an average of 50 new charter schools into the state, according to the report. Charter school students make up about five percent of all public school students in the state.
The audit found that out of 815 charter schools in the state, 451 appear to participate in the breakfast and lunch programs. 151 of the state’s charter schools reportedly lack a physical classroom and therefore do not participate in school nutrition programs.
“It does look like overall, the charter schools are participating,” said Colin Miller, vice president of policy for the California Charter Schools Association. “Over 75 percent of the schools are participating in the programs.”
Not all of the remaining charter schools responded to the survey. Of the 133 that did, 46 offer an alternative meal program, and 39 charter schools reported they lack the resources to provide meals or their students’ ages disqualified them from federal meal programs.
Achieve Charter School of Paradise Inc., located in the town of Paradise, does not offer free or reduced-price meals. According to the audit report, the school is at the mercy of the school district “which charges its students a higher price than other schools in the district.” And at Nevada City School of the Arts, officials reported that students “often show up with little or no food."
Other charter schools that lack free or reduced lunch programs, like Oakland’s Civicorps Corpsmember Academy, provide, according to a school official, fresh “sandwiches with fruits and vegetables" that “are probably more nutritious than the prepackaged meals students purchase elsewhere.”
California Food Policy Advocates stated in its comments in the report that charter schools in the Los Angeles area are doing a better job of meeting the nutritional needs of students, and a significant number of charter schools in the Bay Area are not.
The recommendations to the Department of Education included improving the department's electronic application system to ensure reliable information. The report also recommended that school authorities stop combining information from different schools and review schools' applications.
The state audit department reports to the legislature what departments have not implemented the recommendations after a year, said Margarita Fernandez, spokeswoman for the audit department.
“They use it in some of their budget discussions,” Fernandez told California Watch. “It’s in the department’s best interest to implement the recommendations.”