The Minnesota Legislative Commission on Poverty recently heard disturbing testimony about the school breakfast program: Some schools provide breakfast to students on days when there are standardized tests. After all, it makes good sense to do so.
But what about other days? Is it acceptable to have students sitting in class with empty stomachs on any day?
Schools provide breakfast because many low income students do not eat at home and come to school hungry. There is solid research showing that students perform significantly better if hunger is not interfering with their work. To improve test results, schools want to make sure that all students have had breakfast before taking the exams.
As far back as 1994, a Tufts University study found, "the benefits (of the School Breakfast Program) include higher performance on standardized tests, better school attendance, lowered incidence of anemia, and reduced need for costly special education."
Failure to provide school breakfasts for all students everyday is largely a financial issue. Even though the state and federal government pay part of the tab, schools are facing difficult budget choices, and the breakfast program usually comes up short.
But in the current political climate, in addition to budget problems, some schools may shy away from providing breakfast because of political concerns. Some politicians classify spending on school breakfasts as spending on wasteful “bureaucracy.”
During the 2006 campaign, Governor Tim Pawlenty ran television ads saying that he would improve schools by mandating that they spend at least 70% of educational funds “in the classroom,” not “on more bureaucracy”.
The "70% for classroom spending" was a clever ploy by the governor that has initial popular appeal. It implies that more than 30% of the money spent on education is wasted on "bureaucracy."
Personally, I think we must fight aggressively against waste even if it is only 1% of the budget. 30 or 40% waste would be outrageous.
Governor Pawlenty knows better. But he and a national right-wing lobbying group promoting this bogus "classroom" vs. "bureaucracy" gimmick, want the public to believe that schools would have more than enough resources if they didn't waste so much. They promise more funding for children's classrooms without any tax increase. By attacking schools with allegations of waste, the governor and his allies justify their unwillingness to provide adequate resources for schools.
Instead of asking how we can make sure that at least 70% is spent on some arbitrary definition of "classroom", the appropriate question to ask about budget allocations is, “How can we make sure that 100% of the money that we spend on education is most effectively spent on educating students?”
Without defending every spending decision of every local school district (there are cases where administrative salaries are too high, and people will differ over many school board funding decisions) it is important to examine how every aspect of education spending impacts education quality.
School libraries are "outside the classroom," and thus, according to this scheme, are wasteful bureaucracy. So are building repairs, heating bills, electricity, school buses, and community education.
So are school nurses and counselors and social workers. For a student struggling with a family crisis, help from a counselor may be necessary before the child has a chance of learning anything. Educators know that failure to address a child's mental, physical, or emotional problems also makes it more likely that the student will disrupt class, hurting the education of other students as well.
For a child going to school hungry, a full stomach may be the most important thing we can do to improve that kid's ability to learn.
Yet Minnesota ranks near the bottom among states in the percentage of low income students participating in the school breakfast program. Think how much more effective our schools would be if we were at the top of this ranking instead of 43rd.
School breakfasts don't have the appeal of Governor Pawlenty’s political gimmick, but healthy children make healthy students. We need to address the needs of the whole child if we are to make our schools the best they can be. Providing school breakfasts would be a great start.