Doherty: New Charges in Elizabeth Free School Lunch Scandal Reinforce Need for School Funding Reform
Senator Michael Doherty (R-23) said that new charges announced by the state Attorney General related to corruption and fraud in the Elizabeth school district’s free school lunch program are a reminder that New Jersey’s convoluted school funding formula needs to be reformed to prevent future abuse.
“The newest criminal charges announced by Attorney General Chiesa in Elizabeth are further confirmation that massive fraud exists in the free school lunch program,” said Doherty. “I want to congratulate the Attorney General for his persistence in bringing all of those who are complicit in this fraud to justice.”
Doherty noted that fraudulent enrollment in the school lunch program triggers other expenses that are even greater than the cost of the meals provided to students.
New Jersey’s current school funding formula triggers an ‘At Risk’ designation for students enrolled in the free and reduced price lunch program, resulting in the delivery of an additional $5,000 of state education aid to a school district for each student enrolled.
“The cost to taxpayers of fraud in the school lunch program is much more than just the cost of free meals for students,” said Doherty. “When an ineligible student is signed up for free school lunches, the extra $5,000 their school district receives comes from a finite pot of state education funding, leaving less for deserving children and school districts that follow the rules.”
Doherty further noted that a report issued in 2011 by State Auditor Stephen Eells indicated that 37% of the more than 400,000 students signed up for free and reduced price lunches in New Jersey may be ineligible for the program.
“With so much additional school aid tied to the ‘At Risk’ designation, school districts have little incentive to verify whether the students who sign up for free school lunches are actually eligible,” said Doherty. “Ultimately, school lunch program fraud likely results in hundreds of millions of dollars of school aid being shifted to districts that break the law or look the other way when ineligible students enroll for free lunches. Every taxpayer in New Jersey should be outraged at how easily our current school funding formula can be abused.”
Doherty is the sponsor of the Fair School Funding plan, which would replace the current flawed school funding formula with a fair, simple and transparent formula that would provide every child in the state with an equal share of state education aid, regardless of where they live.
“The fraud demonstrated in Elizabeth is just one example of how easily a school district can manipulate New Jersey’s current school funding formula to their advantage,” Doherty added. “The Fair School Funding plan that I have proposed would eliminate the potential for abuse.”