Panel Paper: Evaluating the Community Eligibility Provision Program: Evidence from Tennessee

Saturday, November 10, 2018
8206 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Adam Kho, University of Southern California

Since its beginnings in the mid-twentieth century, access to free and reduced-price school meals (FRPM) has been an important policy for improving the academic performance of low-income students. Support for this program has developed from an extant literature showing that providing meals at school and eating breakfast and lunch improves attendance, behavior, and academic performance (Belot & James, 2011; Benton & Parker, 1998; Hoyland, Dye & Lawton, 2009; Kleinman et al., 2002; Meyers et al., 1989; Murphy et al., 1998; Pollitt & Mathews, 1998; Rampersaud et al., 2005; Taras, 2005; Wesnes et al., 2003).

Unfortunately, not all students partake in school meals, including some who are eligible for FRPM. For these students, eating subsidized school meals is associated with poverty, and the stigma surrounding this status is avoidable by simply not partaking (Askelson et al., 2015, 2017; Bailey-Davis et al., 2013; Bhatia, Jones & Reicker, 2011; Marples & Spillman, 1995; Mitcherva & Powell, 2009; Poppendieck, 2010). To address this concern (as well as others), the federal government, in 2010, passed the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which provided districts and schools with large enough populations of low-income students with funding to provide free school meals for all students, regardless of family income. Since all students could partake, low-income students would not feel singled out and stigmatized for participating in FRPM.

Using a comparative interrupted time series (CITS) approach and statewide, student-level, longitudinal data from Tennessee, this study evaluates the effects of three years of CEP implementation on student attendance, disciplinary behavior, on-time grade progression, and academic achievement. The CITS follows a framework similar to a difference-in-differences strategy, but controls for time trends prior to treatment in estimating average CEP effects. This study also investigates whether the CEP program helped to reduce stigma by examining heterogeneous effects across various school- and student-level characteristics that define groups in which stigma should be more prevalent.

Preliminary results indicate that, overall, CEP reduced students’ likelihood of committing behavior-related incidents by 1.2 percentage points, but did not impact attendance rates, on-time grade promotion, or student test scores. However, CEP did improve outcomes for more stigma-induced students and schools. Students whose previous FRPM status that characterized them as more-susceptible to the stigma were 0.5 percentage points more likely to progress onto the next grade, and schools with student populations that were more susceptible to the stigma experienced greater attendance rates, fewer behavior-related incidents, and higher science test scores.

As of 2016-17, 85% of eligible schools in Tennessee participated in the CEP program. However, only 55% of eligible schools nationwide have opted in (FRAC, 2017). The policy implications of this study will be pertinent to schools, districts, and policymakers throughout Tennessee and the rest of the country, both to those who have adopted the program to better understand if the switch has translated into educational outcomes, and to those who have not yet adopted, to better inform their decisions to participate going forward.