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National Data

According to the U.S. Department of Education Insitute for Educational Science’s National Center for Educational Statistic’s web site The Condition of Education, from 2011 to 2012, the child poverty rate did not change considerably, staying at around 21 percent. All regions experienced increases in child poverty rates between 2000 and 2012, as did 44 states.

In 2011-2012, approximately 23.2 percent of elementary and 9.7 percent of secondary school students attended high-poverty public schools, up from the 22 percent of elementary and 8 percent of secondary school students who did so in 2008-2009.

Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in high-poverty schools. In 2011-12, Blacks made up 15.8 percent of students overall and 42.5 percent of students in high-poverty schools, and Hispanics made up 23.7 percent of students overall and 30.8 percent of students in high-poverty schools.

Data Source

Using data collected by the U.S. Department of Education Insitute for Educational Science’s National Center for Educational Statistic, the web site, The Condition of Education, publishes data on the percent of students who receive free- and reduced-price lunch. The data is available at the state and national level. Data at the district level is available at the Federal Education Budget Project. While data at the school level can be found at GreatSchools.


The free- and reduced-price lunch (FRPL) program is a federal initiative that provides free or inexpensive lunches to children from low-income families. Students must demonstrate eligibility to participate, and schools receive cash subsidies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay for the food. The program’s enrollment data serves as one of the best sources of data on low-income students. As such, the data is also used to determine funding for various federal and state programs targeted to students from low-income families.

While IES collects and publishes FRPL data via Conditions of Education, the Federal Education Budget Project and GreatSchools websites might be the best places to analyze it. The websites make it easy to compare schools and districts. The websites make it relatively easy to obtain state and district FRPL data and use the information to make comparisons and evaluations.

How to Use the Data

The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to hold schools accountable for the achievement of their low-income students. The law uses the percent of students on free- and reduced-price lunch as the primary indicator of school poverty. You can analyze the FRPL data to gain a better sense of the demographics of your school and district and compare your data with other schools and districts across the country.

How the details were measured

The data is reported as the number of students covered for free- and reduced-price lunch. The data cannot be broken down by race or other student groups.

Limitations of the data

FRPL data poses a number of challenges. For one, some states and districts don’t report the data or don’t report it correctly. One study found that NCES had FRPL data for only about 80 percent of all of the nation’s school districts. Also, there are few procedures within the program to prevent fraud or misreporting. The program typically doesn’t require federal documentation of a child’s household income. FRPL is typically underreported at the high school level due to high school students’ perception that it is a stigma to be considered poor by their peers.

Key Questions to Ask

Is the FRPL data accurate?

A great deal of funding—and accountability—depends on FRPL data. You should make sure to check the accuracy of your data. When New York State performed an audit of the Buffalo City School District’s FRPL program a few years ago, it found that poor data collection efforts had caused the district to underestimate the number of students eligible for FRPL and miss out on over $2 million in state funds. (The district has since fixed the problem.) To audit FRPL data, you should conduct evaluations of your data collection systems and benchmark your data against other indicators of child poverty.

Learn More

The FRPL program has very specific eligibility requirements, which are adjusted every year. To qualify for free meals for school year (SY) 2015-2016, children must come from families with incomes* at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, or $31,525 for a family of four. To qualify for reduced-price meals, students must come from families whose incomes are between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level or about $44,863 for a family of four. Children in households that receive Food Stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families receive free meals regardless of income. (*Note: Families from Alaska and Hawaii have different annual eligibility criteria).

To calculate the percent of students on free- and reduced-price lunch, Condition of Education relies on data from NCES’s Common Core of Data (CCD), a program that collects basic statistical information from every school in the nation. However, Condition of Education data may not always match exactly with CCD data because states may submit changes and updates to their data. More information about the CCD system is available for downloading. You can also download the CCD data, although it may not always correspond with local data due to differences in data collection and reporting.

There are some alternative measures of low-income students. The U.S. Census Bureau, for instance, collects detailed data on the percent of all children in poverty for every state and county in the nation. To obtain the data, educators should visit the American Community Survey site, and then refine your search resulting by entering B17012 into the field for “topic of table name,” which provides data on families in poverty with children under the age of 18.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

A culture of collaboration spurs academic growth in a low-income California community—Eighty-eight percent of this school district’s students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, but this school’s unwavering focus on excellence is the catalyst for students’ outstanding academic progress.

Long-term commitment key to Kansas City (Kan.) schools’ success—Faced with a high drop-out rate and low student performance, the Kansas City (Kan.) School Board wasn’t interested in quick fixes. Instead, members opted for across-the-board strategies to improve teaching and strengthen student learning.