On July 9th, Wyoming Valley West School District in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania took reckless steps in “lunch shaming” hundreds of students and ordering repayment of their student meal debts. With $22,000 in accumulated IOU’s and several families owing over $450 each, district officials mailed letters threatening child separation to around 1,000 parents. The district’s letter, signed by Director of Federal Programs Joseph Muth, lunch shamed students and parents while questioning the guardianship of their children.
The letter utilized fear tactics to coerce parents into repaying the district. However, not all families are adequately capable of repaying their debts, as 64 percent of Wyoming Valley West students live below the poverty line.
“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child’s right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”
Todd Carmichael, CEO of the Philadelphia-based La Colombe coffee company, was one of at least five private donors to offer to pay the $22,000 debt in full, no strings attached. Initially, the district refused the donations, without stating their reason. Just a day after their refusal, Wyoming Valley West accepted Carmichael’s money and issued a formal apology.
Students and parents are economically trapped in a district with a hostile school administration, as seen in the initial “lunch shaming” letter and their rejection of Carmichael’s and others’ donations. For better or for worse, families in the district (and the nation) perceive Wyoming Valley West district officials as inept and cold-hearted, caring more about money than student wellbeing.
There needs to be an opportunity for hungry students to succeed and learn without facing hostility.
Fortunately, there is the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC allows donors in the private sector (like Todd Carmichael and La Colombe) to write off charitable donations scholarship funds for low-income students, like those in Wyoming Valley West School District. Scholarship recipients can choose their preferred school, which best addresses their needs.
Several private schools have taken a more innovative approach to solve student hunger.
Logos Academy, a K-12 school in York, Pennsylvania, relies on EITCs to allow low-income students a quality education. The school offers a free breakfast and lunch for every student during the school year, and alerts students and families about free meals during the summer. Logos Academy seeks to permanently alleviate impoverished families by hiring parents to work at the school as well.
At Cornerstone Christian Academy in Philadelphia, multiple EITC scholarships are available for students looking for an academically rigorous high school experience. And the food is a great deal: Cornerstone provides free breakfast for every student each morning, and offers affordable lunches as well.
St. Helena Incarnation School, a branch of the Independence Mission Schools, is a tuition-assisted school in Philadelphia. St. Helena gives need-based scholarships that combine with EITC to expand school choice for underprivileged students. St. Helena offers free breakfast and lunch to their all of their students, as well as after-school care and bus service.
However, not all eligible students receive scholarships. In the 2017-2018 school year, 49,356 students were denied a tax credit scholarship due to low funding. Unfortunately, this is not a recent trend: since 2012, 49% of applications for tax credit scholarships were denied.
In the 2019-2020 Pennsylvania budget, the EITC K-12 scholarship cap received a modest increase of $25 million, from $110 million to $135 million. This expansion could enable up to 12,500 additional student scholarships. Though this is a beneficial step forward, the arbitrary limits on tax credit scholarships still means thousands of eligible students are denied scholarships.
Clearly, Wyoming Valley West School District is an exceptional case—many district schools make a serious effort to cultivate a great educational experience. However, students should not be stuck in bad situations, like when Wyoming Valley West district officials “lunch shame” students and families. By raising the limits on the EITC, students and parents will have peace of mind and better educational opportunities.