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Christie May Replace Free-Lunch Use as Measure of Poverty

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March 5 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is looking for a new way to measure student poverty as part of his plan to overhaul how school aid is distributed.

The state currently measures “at-risk students” by determining the number of children receiving free or reduced-price school lunches, and districts with students in that program get more aid. Those lunch counts are inaccurate and subject to fraud, Christie, 49, a first-term Republican, said today at a press conference in Trenton.

“We’ve all heard the stories of abuse and misuse of this program,” Christie said. “A report by the state auditor has revealed high levels of fraudulent enrollment in the program, resulting in possibly tens of millions of dollars being misdirected or misspent.”

Christie has said that the state’s school-funding formula sends too much money to low-income districts that continue to underperform, while suburban systems are shortchanged. He proposed raising school aid by $213 million in his budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, and seeks changes that would give more money to districts according to their enrollment of poor children.

Task Force

The governor said he signed an executive order today creating a panel that will find and eliminate fraud and abuse in the school-lunch program, and determine the best method of measuring student poverty.

New Jersey’s $198 million lunch program, which is mostly funded by the federal government, provided free or reduced-price meals to 428,000 students as of May 2010, according to a June 27, 2011, report by the state auditor’s office. As many as 37 percent of the program’s recipients may have been ineligible, the report found.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, in a Feb. 23 report, cited possible fraud or error in the program and recommended that participation no longer count as part of the funding formula. He also questioned whether low income was an accurate gauge of students’ potential.

In September, the president of the Elizabeth school board and two others were charged with falsifying income information so their children would receive the subsidies, at a cost to taxpayers of $7,000 over five years, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

More Money

The Elizabeth incident is proof that the school-funding formula needs an overhaul, Republican state Senator Michael Doherty, from Washington Township in Warren County, told reporters at Christie’s press conference. Districts draw $5,000 to $6,000 in aid for each student in the lunch program, he said.

New Jersey spent an average $17,076 per public-school student in 2008, the third-highest amount among the states and 60 percent above the U.S. average, according to Cerf’s report. Spending more money hasn’t resulted in all of New Jersey’s students receiving proper educations, Christie has said.

In 2011, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that New Jersey had the nation’s second-widest “achievement gap,” or the test-results differences between rich and poor students in eighth-grade reading.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elise Young in Trenton at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum at

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