Number of Maryland students eligible for reduced-price meals spikes

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The number of Maryland students eligible for free or reduced-price meals has risen surprisingly high, causing a $390 million increase on the cost of the state’s sweeping education reform law in the next fiscal year, according to a recent state fiscal briefing.

Fall 2022 enrollment figures showed 110,503 more students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals than in fall 2021, increasing the number of qualifying students from about 323,000 to 433,000.

Senate President Bill Ferguson told reporters Tuesday the most recent number makes up about 52% of Maryland K-12 students, noting that it is adding to the cost of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

“Normally, we fluctuate between 3,000 and 4,000 every year, but 52% of students being eligible for free and reduced-lunch meals is certainly not what was anticipated in the projections for the blueprint, but if it’s accurate we should be doing it,” Ferguson said.

The reform blueprint for the state’s K-12 schools, which the General Assembly approved two years ago over then-Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, is being phased in over a decade. It focuses on expanding early childhood education, increasing teachers’ salaries, and providing aid to help struggling schools adequately prepare students for college and careers.

Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the increase in students eligible for the reduced-price meals “will escalate the concentration of poverty grants pretty significantly,” that are part of the law.

The Senate president said the increase could be due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people went on Medicaid as a result of unemployment or a variety of other reasons.

“And so that could mean that when things started reopening and the unemployment rate dropped again, a lot of kids came off of Medicaid, and so if they were qualified because of Medicaid this year from 18 months ago, next year we’d see a big drop potentially, but we don’t know,” Ferguson said.

Maryland was undercounting the number of students who qualify previously, because of insufficient data that relied on families turning in forms, Ferguson said. After the state added Medicaid data, an increase was expected, but not to this degree.

“I don’t think anybody expected the increase to be as significant,” he said.

Ferguson said state budget analysts are working to double-check the data.

“We’ve got to make sure that the data is right,” Ferguson said. “We’re budgeting right now as though it is, so if there is a change or alternation it would be something that we’d have to adjust mid-session.”

The Maryland Department of Legislative Services cited the unexpected surge in the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals in a recent budget report to legislators “as the primary reason for the deterioration in the sustainability of the Blueprint Fund from prior forecasts.”

As a result, the report said, the compensatory education component of the state’s K-12 education formulas grows by $390 million in fiscal year 2024.

“Over the five-year forecast period, this translates to more than $1.6 billion in additional compensatory education costs and results in more schools qualifying for concentration of poverty grants,” the department said.

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