The Southern Education Foundation’s bogus school lunch study

Photo of Vicki Alger
Vicki Alger
Research Fellow, Independent Institute
  • See All Articles
  • Subscribe to RSS
  • Bio

      Vicki Alger

      Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is currently working on a book for the Independent Institute examining the 30-year history of the U.S. Department of Education.

      She has been Associate Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in Sacramento, California, and the Director of the Goldwater Institute's Center for Educational Opportunity in Phoenix, Arizona. She received her Ph.D. in political philosophy from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas, where she was an Earhart Foundation Fellow, and she has lectured at universities nationwide, including the U.S. Military Academy, West Point.

      Dr. Alger’s research focuses on education reform measures to improve academic accountability at all levels, promote a competitive education climate, and increase parents’ control over their children’s education. She is the author of more than 30 education policy studies, co-author of Short-Circuited: The Challenges Facing the Online Learning Revolution in California and Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice, as well as Associate Producer of the documentary “Not as Good as You Think: Myth of the Middle Class School.” Dr. Alger has advised the U.S. Department of Education on public school choice and higher education reform. She has also advised education policy makers in nearly forty states and England, provided expert testimony before state legislative education committees, and served on two national accountability task forces. Dr. Alger’s research helped advance four parental choice voucher and tax-credit scholarship programs in Arizona in 2006, as well as the state’s first higher education voucher, and she provided expert affidavits as part of the successful legal defense of educational choice programs for low-income, foster-care, and disabled children since 2007.

      In 2008, Dr. Alger’s research inspired the introduction of the most school choice bills in California history—five in all—and her research was used as part of the successful legal defense of the country’s first tax-credit scholarship program in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 (Garriott v. Winn Arizona). Dr. Alger’s research and commentary on education policy have been widely published and cited in leading public-policy outlets such as Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, Education Week and the Chronicle of Higher Education, in addition to national news media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Investor’s Business Daily, Forbes.com, Fortune, Human Events, La Opinión, and the Los Angeles Times. She has also appeared on the Fox News Channel, local ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS affiliates, as well as news radio programs across the country.

A recent study from the Southern Education Foundation finds that half of all public school students now live in poverty and is fueling calls for more spending. Yet a candid review shows that pricey federal programs are sorely impoverished in terms of results.

Reading, math, and science scores for American 17-year-olds have remained essentially flat since 1970, but since then the cost of public K-12 schooling for those students has increased 200 percent in real terms, from $55,000 to $165,000 each, according to analyses by the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson.

There’s also little reason to believe more money for federal anti-poverty programs will achieve better results.

The SEF uses eligibility for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program (FRL), part of the National School Lunch Program, as its poverty yardstick. Students qualifying for free meals come from families at 130 percent of the poverty level ($30,615 for a family of four), while students eligible for reduced-price meals come from families at 185 percent of the poverty level ($43,568 for a family of four).

Based on those FRL criteria the SEF finds that half of public school children nationwide are impoverished, ranging from 37 percent of students in the West to 53 percent of students in the South.

Compared to Census Bureau poverty data, those rates are way out of whack. Nationwide 36 percent of American families with school-age children are low-income, and regionally FRL program poverty rates are 12 to 14 percentage points higher than the Census poverty rates.

A leading reason for these inflated figures is that the federal meal program is bloated with fraud. Recent examples include Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Chicago, where hundreds of school officials falsified their income to get “free” lunches for their children. Lying about family income is rampant, and income verification is minimal at best.

The percentage of school children receiving free and reduced-price meals has also increased nearly five-fold from 15 percent in 1969 to more than 68 percent in 2012, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service. Yet over the same period the percentages of families with school age children living below the poverty level grew from 11 percent to 18 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

This means the percentage of children receiving federally subsidized meals now outpaces actual poverty rates by about four to one.

No child should go hungry. Yet the free and reduced-price lunch program is a prime example of government-driven Great Society programs that are long on good intentions (not to mention spending) but short on accountability and results.

Expanding school choice is a better way to combat poverty through better education.