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.”