The state's method of identifying poor children has left out thousands of recent immigrants, costing some schools districts in Massachusetts millions of dollars.

As lawmakers on Beacon Hill debate how much to fund schools, including additional money for educating poor students, school leaders from these districts are demanding that the state change how it counts children living in poverty.

“There is a social injustice happening when particular populations of kids aren't being counted the way that they should be,” Revere Superintendent Dianne Kelly said.

The state sends additional money to districts for each student living in poverty to help with their education, based on the idea that children in low-income homes need more support or time in class to succeed. When the state changed how it identified poor students a few years ago, the new system missed some 7,500 new immigrant students, according to state estimates. At a time districts including Revere, Chelsea and Brockton have cut teachers and programs because of rising costs, the undercount of poor students has hit their finances hard.

In Revere, Kelly has identified 483 students she believes should qualify as “economically disadvantaged” under the state’s new method. Revere receives almost $4,000 per economically disadvantaged student.

“That means just under $2 million that's not in our budget that should be,” Kelly said.

Free Lunch for Everyone

Public schools across the country have long used students’ qualification for free and reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program as a way to designate who was poor. Then a 2010 law allowed high-poverty districts to offer universal free lunch and breakfast. Districts and schools were eligible if at least 40 percent of students were eligible for free lunch.

Just about everyone says this law was a good thing. Schools no longer had to collect income information from parents and didn’t have to employ lunch room staff to take money. Individual kids no longer bore the stigma of needing free food. But there was an unintended consequence. Massachusetts, along with every other state, had to come up with a new way to identify needy kids.

“We decided to use the data that was already available to us,” said Jeff Wulfson, the deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE.

DESE used state computer databases that keep track of families who benefit from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps), Transitional Assistance for Needy Families (welfare) and MassHealth, the state-federal program administering Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Systemic Bias

In 2017, about two years after DESE started using these databases to identify poor students, officials conducted a study to audit the results and found a “systemic bias” that disproportionately affected some communities.

“We estimate that there are in the order of 7,500 recent immigrant students who qualified for free lunch benefits, but were not identified as economically disadvantaged through the new direct certification process,” the Low-Income Calculation Study said.

The report noted that recent or unauthorized immigrants are “often either ineligible for state assistance programs or, even if they are eligible, reluctant to apply for benefits for fear of jeopardizing their immigration status.”

Statewide, the new immigrant student population was only about 26,000, or nearly 3 percent of the state’s enrollment. Two-thirds of these students, however, were concentrated in 12 districts: Boston, Lawrence, Worcester, Brockton, Lynn, Chelsea, Lowell, Revere, Brookline, Cambridge, Springfield and Everett. Most of the new immigrants come from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and Brazil.

“To the agree that refugees and undocumented immigrants are disproportionately under-counted in the current economically disadvantaged model, and to the degree that these populations are disproportionately concentrated in a small number of districts, it is reasonable to assume that it creates some systemic bias,” concluded the report.

Nearly two years later, the state hasn’t found a solution. It’s tried to help affected districts by sending additional aid to try to make up for the lost funds. But districts complain it’s not enough.

“That's been a challenge — how to compensate for those missing students,” Wulfson said.

Replicate the Old System

The districts most affected by the under-counting of immigrants have been calling on lawmakers to address the problem.

In Chelsea, Superintendent Mary Bourque said it’s hard to estimate exactly how many students have been under-counted, but the state estimated in 2017 that 1,100, or 17 percent of students in Chelsea, were recent immigrants.

“To fail to address the need for an ‘accurate count’ of economically disadvantaged students, especially in these student groups where the pattern is clear, is morally wrong,” Bourque wrote in a letter to Wulfson in September. “Chelsea students should not be treated any differently because of the times we live in and the status of their families. It is simply the right thing to do, to fix this injustice once and for all.”

Senate bill SD.101 introduced by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz from Jamaica Plain, would update the foundation formula for funding schools and change how poor students are identified. It calls for allowing districts like Chelsea and Revere to count poor students again, much the way they did under the old system.

“It shouldn't be as complicated as it has become,” Chang-Diaz said. “There is a pretty low-tech, common-sense solution here, which is to allow districts to continue doing what they've always done, which is to manually ask families to fill out a form to verify if they are low-income.”

But Wulfson said it would take a lot of effort from the state and school districts to do this.

“That’s still on the table,” Wulfson said. “But we're trying to get to the right answer with as little bureaucracy as possible.”

This week, Gov. Charlie Baker is expected to address this problem when he presents his solution to help struggling school districts keep up with rising costs. Wulfson wouldn’t say how Baker plans to do this.

Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.