This assumption is always my starting point. When I talk to parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, I always try to keep this in mind: We all want what's best. We just don't always agree on how to get there.
In Wisconsin, however, as in many other states, defining "what's best" for public education has taken an ugly, highly politicized turn. Things have changed dramatically since Governor Scott Walker took office and hit public schools with a one-two punch of crippling the authority of its educators by undermining their union rights with Act 10, and enacting the largest cuts to public education of any budget in history: $2.2 billion in cuts in the 2011-13 biennium and a new funding structure in place now that penalizes schools that don't score well on the new "school report cards." So it's not surprising to see state- and local-level debates on policy issues, but I have to admit this latest one caught me off-guard, because one of my other minimum assumptions is that we all want our kids to feel safe and respected at school. And it seems like there would be less room for disagreement on what that means.
|The Waterloo Petition. A very simple request.|
So I was shocked and outraged when a friend shared this petition with me. The petition is simple, and very polite. It calls on a Wisconsin public school district - Waterloo - to stop actively enforcing its policy of taking a tray of hot food away from kids in grades 5-12 who don't have money on their lunch accounts, and accepts the 3-day grace period currently enforced by the district (after day 3, the student wouldn't get lunch at all). The current policy allows food service workers to take the tray of food away and give the child an alternate lunch (a sandwich & milk) and tell them to make sure their parents put money in the account. In grades 4k-4, children are told before they go through the hot lunch line that they have insufficient funds, and are given a sandwich at that time. The district, meanwhile, also makes other attempts to notify the parents.
Many Wisconsinites are outraged to learn that this is happening here, in a poor rural district with high rate of unemployment reeling under massive cuts to its budget under Scott Walker's administration. For struggling families, the 3-day "grace period" (an ironic name for the 3 days your child gets his/her lunch thrown out) is not enough. When you're living from check to check, 3 days means nothing if that 3rd day isn't payday.
While this policy obviously does not affect kids who qualify for free lunch under the federally-subsidized school lunch program, it clearly affects kids who pay full price, "reduced" fees for lunch or those who - for whatever reason - did not opt into the free/reduced system.
Critics of such policies see them as shaming kids in the lunch room as a sort of intimidation-by-proxy to get their parents to pay up on their school lunch tabs. Having followed national news on this topic for the past couple of years, and living in a district (Sun Prairie) with a much more soft-handed approach to the issue [or so I thought; see update below], I was surprised to learn this is actually a widespread practice, apparently, in Wisconsin. In anticipation of seeing the spotlight shift to our own home state, I connected with a number parents who had seen first hand what's really going on in Waterloo, as well as the district administrator and food services manager, so I could get the full story. What I learned was disturbing, and depressing. Waterloo is a rural district of fewer than 900 students, with about 36% of its students receiving free and reduced lunch in 2012-13 according to DPI data - slightly lower than the state average of 41.5%. The question of how districts are going to break even on their lunch program is clearly one that it complex and requires tough decisions. But the issue ultimately boils down to whether kids who have been affected by a policy that relies on a shame-based motivation strategy are victims of institutional bullying.
Here's how the policy works in Waterloo: the student goes through the lunch line and gets his/her food. At the cashier/scanning table, the account balance is reviewed. If a student has insufficient funds or a negative balance, the hot lunch is taken away and thrown into the garbage in front of all the other students and the student is handed a "substitute" lunch - we'll call this the Lunch of Shame. In Waterloo, Food Services Manager Patsy Epstein confirmed, it's supposed to be a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, their choice of a string cheese or yogurt, and a milk. But none of the parents I talked to had ever seen or heard of a child being offered the cheese or yogurt. The alternative lunch is added on to the student's tab at a reduced cost. The student gets 3 days to pay the tab - three Lunches of Shame - and if there's still no balance by then, they don't get served lunch at all.
Parents are calling on the district to stop this practice, and their request is really the absolute least they could ask. All they're asking is to stop taking the tray of hot food away from the kids and throwing the food away. From the petition:
Students with low funds/no funds in their school lunch accounts are having their trays taken and thrown away. Students need a lunch that is both tasty and nutritious to power them through the school day. We are asking that the students to be able to keep the original tray, at regular cost and the family to be allowed to incur a negative balance for 3 days.For many administrators, however, such a policy is an effective way of dealing with the very real hassle of trying to make sure busy parents remember to fund their kids' accounts. Without a "threat" that the child won't receive lunch, they argue, accounts lapse and they'd soon go into the red. Waterloo District Administrator Connie Schiestl spoke to me at length about this issue, arguing passionately and repeatedly that Waterloo is "not unique" in its policy, and she shared some of the research she'd done to see what other districts are doing in Wisconsin. Further, she argues, the system they have in place works: of the 600 families (about 800 kids) in the district, she claims, they currently only have two accounts in the negative - one, she said, for four cents. The other, for about a dollar. Before implementing this system in 2005, she said, the district contracted with a private food service company that had a different policy - and many accounts in the negative.
At the middle- and high-school levels, furthermore, lunch service (and its tricky funding formula) is complicated by à la carte offerings that are not covered by federal "free and reduced lunch" funds. Some districts - like the Madison Metropolitan School District - even require students to have a balance on their cards if they are to receive any such items, a glitch that means it's possible for a "free lunch" student to be denied a meal. Catherine Cappelaro wrote about this happening to her own child in Madison last fall. Because the federal nutrition guidelines are very strict about what constitutes a "reimbursable" lunch, schools often find it easier to put the "check out" at the end of the line rather than scan the cards first, which means students are more likely to have their food taken away from them if they don't have funds in their accounts. Due to rigid confidentiality laws, lunchroom staff do not know which students should get a "free" or "reduced" lunch; they only see if there's enough money in the account to cover a given transaction.
Federal law allows districts to set their own policies to enforce and collect school lunch money, and practices and policies seem to vary widely around the state. Most districts, like Waterloo, offer a "substitute" lunch for kids with insufficient funds in their accounts - it's usually a sandwich and a milk, sometimes with a yogurt or cheese stick on the side. There's no mandate from the state or the feds to offer this, but most districts do at least for a few days to give the parents time to put money in the account. Some districts will continue to feed the kids after the "grace period;" others cut kids off entirely after 3 days or so. But according to Schiestl, that "never happens" in Waterloo. The threat of no lunch is enough, and parents pay up by the 3rd day. She defends the current policy, saying "It's done respectfully. An alternate is given at the checkout. No one stands there and dramatically throws out the tray. It's not a big production. [The hot lunch] is, ultimately, thrown away." She acknowledges that some students may be "embarassed" by this process - "I'm sure that has happened" - but insists that her staff handles the situation with respect.
And that's where the disagreement begins. Waterloo parent Erin Forrest takes issue with the very possibility of handling this situation with respect:
"There is no respectful way to throw away a child's lunch. This is at best a wasteful practice, and at worst school sanctioned humiliation of children. The Waterloo School System gets a lot of things right, one of which is the focus on character education. The adults set the tone for the school community, and I think they would be the first to agree that actions speak louder than words. I fail to see how we can set high character expectations for our students while demonstrating this kind of unnecessary, punitive behavior."One Waterloo parent, Shylo Schroud, shared the story of her own son's experience. He was 7 or 8 years old - in 1st or 2nd grade - and Shylo was a busy single mom. She'd received notice from the school that the account was low and called the school to tell them she'd bring in money that day. She didn't make it in time for lunch, and found her son set apart from the other students in the cafeteria, tears streaming down his face. He had a sandwich on his tray and was sobbing. He'd been told he couldn't get hot lunch and felt mortified to be singled out from his classmates. Shylo felt even worse for kids put in this position: “It’s traumatic for them to be singled out. I’m a single mom. I work 12 hours shifts. I just forgot. But some of these children don’t even eat at home.” She took her son through the line and paid for a second, hot lunch, but he was too upset to eat it. She left the cafeteria in tears herself. "I was traumatized," she said. "I left crying."
This experience still haunts their family, and she's now "anxious about making sure there's money in the account, and kids are vigilant about it." They constantly remind her to make sure the money is there so they don't have to go through anything like that again.
From the District's perspective, this means their system is working: not wanting her child to experience this again, she's been diligent about ensuring funds are in the account, even when times are tough. I asked Shylo what she thinks about that perspective. "That's bullying," she said. "Why would you traumatize a child and punish them for something they don’t have control over? [The school's] job is to protect these children, to set a good example. The last thing [students] should worry about is if they are going to get a regular lunch or not.” She thinks the district policy should be changed even further than suggested by the modest proposal of the petition (to stop throwing away the hot lunches). "I don't think a kid should ever be turned away," she said. "Children could be so anxious about it, worrying if they're going to get a lunch or not, that they're not even concentrating on school."
It's precisely this sort of thinking that prompted Waterloo parent and PTO secretary Angie Stinnett to advocate for this issue in her district. She's been deeply involved in this issue for some time and spearheaded both the petition and action at the district level to implement the new policy. Prompted by her concerns, a Policy Review Committee has moved to recommend the new policy to the Waterloo School Board at its next meeting. The petition is intended to demonstrate the extent of community support for the proposal and apply pressure on the school board to ensure that they vote in favor of it. District Administrator Connie Schiestl clearly sees the petition as unneccessary and seems uncomfortable with the attention it draws to her district, and Angie insists that her own intention was not to draw publicity to the issue but to demonstrate community support, having been branded as something of a rogue parent by district administration. But Angie Stinnett is no rogue parent. Every person I talked to outside of administration spoke extremely highly of her and appreciatively of her efforts. A city council member, she's well known and respected as a public school advocate in Waterloo.
While the district says this policy is enforced once or twice a day, she first learned about this situation when a friend of her 12-year-old daughter was so humiliated to have her lunch taken away that she has been ashamed to get back in the lunch line ever since. This middle school student now goes straight to the tables, where her friends buy her à la carte items from the cafeteria line, or share food off their own trays. Intuitively, these kids do what the adults who should be their role models refuse: give a hungry kid a hot meal. According to Angie's daughter, her friend is one of many who now skip lunch to avoid the shame of this humiliation and now rely on the generosity of their friends - at the often unknown expense of those kids' parents - to get anything to eat at all.
|The Lunch of Shame? |
"It's better than nothing." Or is it? Parents disagree.
At least the Waterloo district makes its own PB&J,
which is higher in calories and nutrition.
When Angie learned about this situation, she approached her PTO, then arranged a meeting with district administration. At this first meeting, Waterloo business manager Andrew Christensen, she says, repeatedly bragged about the "success" of his implementation of the dump-the-lunch program, claiming that since he'd started it he'd reduced the district's "lunch debt". According to Angie, Christensen characterized the policy like this: "The child is embarrassed and goes home and puts pressure on the parents to pay." [Note: I did reach out to Andrew Christensen to get his perspective, and his thoughts on the fiscal impact of this policy, but he immediately referred me to his boss, District Administrator Connie Schiestl]. According to Angie, the district's claim that the policy is effective because there has "never" been a case where it got past that 3-day point, doesn't mean kids are paying up. It means they've been so thoroughly humiliated that they're opting out of lunch altogether.
Angie Stinnett - and her PTO - immediately offered to use some of their funds to establish a scholarship fund that would cover the kids who couldn't pay and avoid this situation altogether - a practice that is widespread across the state and a regular feature of many PTO budgets. Their suggestion, she says, was dismissed out of hand. Angie said she they were told at the first meeting with administration that there were "federal statutes" that prevented using outside funds for student lunches. Worse, they were told that "everyone" would "take advantage" of such a program and that the administration wouldn't even consider the offer "unless the PTO was willing to pay for lunch for every kid in the school for 180 days [the entire school year], they said, 'Because that's what would happen.'" Another parent I spoke to confirmed this, saying the district's belief that parents (and students) would "abuse the system" is at the heart of their resistance to changing the policy or accepting funds to cover the tabs.
Meanwhile, teachers are "not allowed" to help cover student lunches and Angie describes a climate of fear among teachers and staff, who are afraid, in the toxic post-Act 10 environment, to speak out against school policy or procedure for fear of losing their jobs or other retribution - a reality that has become all too common across Wisconsin and around the country.
Each of the parents I spoke to was outraged that this is how highly the district thinks of its taxpayers and students: that they would greedily take advantage of a program designed to help avoid humiliating kids who needed a little extra cushion. When I asked Connie Schiestl about this, she denied saying that the proposal wouldn't work; she insisted that she's open to the idea of a PTO fund, but had raised some "practical" concerns that would need to be addressed and that abuse of any new system should be taken into consideration when making a decision. Shylo Schroud sees this issue of "abuse" as a distraction from the real issue, which is shaming the student for the behavior of the parent: "I could see it happening [that people take advantage of the system] but this isn’t about them. It’s about the kids.”
Angie Stinnett also reports that she received conflicting information from the District regarding the funding of the school lunch program, being alternately told that they had a "lunch debt" of thousands of dollars and that they had a large surplus that they couldn't afford to waste on student lunch accounts. She says she was told that the district couldn't use their surplus to pay off these debts because they "use the profit from the nutrition program to buy things in other areas of the school." Connie Schiestl confirmed that the surplus is usually used for kitchen equipment, but I learned from DPI that federal law actually prohibits a district from using food service budgets to pay off delinquent accounts. Money for that would have to come from the school's general budget - or a special fund like the one proposed by the PTO. The nutrition programs of public schools operate on a budget self-sufficient from the general budget and subject to very strict federal rules and restrictions. Angie noted that the District was in hot water recently after a federal audit of the lunch program revealed that they'd been unlawfully using cash-in-hand payments for school lunches to pay off existing debts on student accounts rather than letting students use that money to buy lunch that day.
Angie says that when she took the issue to the administration, she was met with both resistance and an apparent lack of concern - or lack of belief in the existence of concern. At a second, taped session of the Policy Review Committee the week of Feb. 24, the business manager was not invited, and the administrator denied that certain things had been said in the previous meetings. At least one member of the Board demanded a petition to demonstrate that there was actually any public interest in this issue before they'd take action. The Board said they'd review that petition with the committee's recommendation at their March 10 meeting, read it again at their April meeting, and - if passed - implement a "trial period" from April 21st to the end of the school year to see if not throwing away lunches has any negative impact on the collection process - by which, one assumes, they mean "will the lunch debt at that point be more than $1.04?" Since throwing away the lunch is a symbolic gesture, and one that literally wastes taxpayer money, it's unclear how this fiscal impact will be assessed, or how this "savings" will be calculated.
After the meeting, Angie immediately set up the petition, which had 100 signatures in the first 24 hours and is now in excess of 330 after three days. Social media, parents report, is abuzz with supportive discussion as parents become aware of this practice of institutional bullying that's taking place in their schools.
As Waterloo sees this issue move front and center, districts all over the state struggle regularly with the same concerns. The challenge, says DPI Nutrition Program Consultant Deb Wollin, is that districts have to juggle meeting their "ultimate goal" - "to feed children" - with their need to balance the books, a concern that's increasingly problematic for the strapped districts in rural Wisconsin. But, ultimately, the parent is responsible for providing funds or a separate lunch for the child. “It’s unfortunate that the children are being punished for the parents’ inability to do the right thing.” Wollin says that giving a warning period before withholding lunch, and/or taking trays away are "very widespread practice" in Wisconsin, but stresses that districts do work hard to make sure that parents have been notified - often repeatedly. Not providing lunch, she says, is actually "a form of child neglect…to not send food with the child, and can actually be reported to Health and Human Services.”
Regardless of their intention, however, kids are being negatively impacted by these policies. Stinnett puts the matter bluntly:
"Children are not debt collectors. If one child is humiliated it's too many."
What we need in Wisconsin - and everywhere - are more parents like Angie Stinnett to stand up against policies that have the potential to hurt the children we pay so richly to serve through programs we should be able to trust. Angie sums this up beautifully, reminding us that children should feel safe at school:
"I am a true believer that 'it takes a village.' I love our schools and I would never send my children there if I didn't consider the school an extension of our home. The school is an extension of our home. And I would never withhold food from a child in my home."Angie's thoughts echo those of many who deeply believe that the social contract we enter when we entrust our children to the public school means that our children will be treated with respect, and that at the minimum they will be provided a safe environment, free of discrimination or harassment, so that each child has an equal chance to learn.
Stories like this have recently made national news, raising awareness and stimulating debate. In January, a Utah school made headlines for throwing the lunches of kids who couldn't pay into the trash. Just this month, a Colorado charter school principal was fired for refusing to participate in such behavior.
Shaming children for an inability to pay for lunch, critics argue, is psychologically damaging, bullying behavior. It's most humiliating thing the district can choose to do. And wasting a full tray of perfectly good food on top of this humiliation only insults the taxpayers of the district. In the Utah case, a generous individual "solved" the problem by paying the tab.
That tab was $465.
In Waterloo, we're at $1.04.
Is that the price we put on dignity in educating the next generation?
Is all of this really worth a few, a few hundred, or a couple thousand dollars? How much taxpayer money is being spent on staff time to "enforce" these policies and try to collect money from parents? How much money is being wasted by throwing out perfectly good hot lunches?
What about equity?
What about leveling the playing field for students of limited means?
What about human decency and treating each student with respect?
The proposal put forth by Angie Stinnett is very simple, and ultimately the question we all have to ask ourselves is very simple, too:
What's the price we really pay for these practices?
It's one that cannot be measured only in dollars.
Some will argue that there's no such thing as a free lunch, and that we're not doing our kids any favors by coddling them through the cafeteria line. But here's the thing: there is such a thing as a free (or reduced) lunch. And most of us willingly, happily, pay for it ourselves with our tax dollars. We provide this lunch to needy kids whose families cannot afford the expense. And in FY 2013, 41.5% of Wisconsin students were eligible for it. That's 358,639 kids. But thousands more are from families on the fence - who may have little to no disposable income, or who may even qualify for free lunch but do not opt in. Do we have less of an obligation to ensure that these children are not hungry at school than any others?
In public education, we talk a lot about the need for equity and data-driven decision-making in our schools. Let's put the data that matters most first:
- Kids don't learn well when they're hungry.
- Wisconsin schools have some of the highest achievement gaps in the nation.
- Every kid has the right to a quality education. (See Exhibit A)
And I call on the citizens of Waterloo to wake up and look hard at who's serving on their school board, and who's making policy decisions at the administrative level. There's an election coming up on April 1st, and voters have the opportunity to change the status quo. I'm told that the two School Board incumbents up for reelection are being challenged by Laurie Freund and Laura Cotting - two candidates who could potentially change the tone of the conversation. School board elections matter, and it's absolutely critical - in Waterloo and everywhere - that we elect people who put the lessons we're teaching our kids first when making decisions about what "matters" in public education.
We can sign petitions. We can pay attention. We can get involved. We can vote. We can participate in the democratic process of protecting our students and our schools against those who, in the words of Angie Stinnett, "are so wrapped up in administration that they forget that these are small people, people we love, in our schools."
We can all be more like Angie. We can speak up, speak out, and let our communities know: we are not alone in our desire to put students first. And maybe, if we do, we can move on to the REAL problems facing our schools and ensure that no student has to worry about being humiliated in front of the school by a trusted adult.
As a public education advocate, I truly do believe that we all want what's best for our kids and our schools. I try to avoid opening up those cans of worms that sometimes - despite the best intentions - send the message that our public schools are "failing" our kids or that the educators and staff in Wisconsin public schools are anything less than the well-qualified, caring, committed professionals that they are. We know that's not true. But we also know that we can do better. And we know that local control means that we can shape the policy we want our administrators to follow.
We can do better. School lunch isn't just about what we're serving. It's about how we serve it. Kids can learn as much in the lunchroom about how to be decent citizens as they do in the classroom. Let's model the sort of behavior we want them to take beyond school walls. Let's treat them with the level of respect we'd like to see them demonstrate themselves.
In Paris, kids eat pretty much what adult eat.
"The family pays what they can afford, the city picks up the rest."
"The family pays what they can afford, the city picks up the rest."
After writing this post, several people reached out to inform me that the policy in my own district, Sun Prairie, may not be as "soft-handed" in practice as I was told when interviewing administrators for this piece. I've since learned that we, too, have a practice (if not policy) of taking trays of food and throwing them into the trash, and that discretion is left to each school on how this is handled. I took my concerns to our school board and administration, and brought up the question at a school board candidate forum as well. Each of the candidates spoke in opposition to any policy that shames a student, including re-elected board president Tom Weber and newly elected board member Carol Albright. Our local advocacy and action team, SPARC, also asked that the board take up this issue and I'm pleased to say it's on the agenda for the April 21, 2014 meeting of the Performance and Operations Committee. Sun Prairie residents and educators who care about this issue are encouraged to attend that meeting, and/or share their thoughts and concerns with the board and our superintendent. Emails can be sent to SPASD board president Tom Weber at email@example.com and District Superintendent Dr. Tim Culver at firstname.lastname@example.org.