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Providing Meals for School Children as COVID-19 Persists

By Niu Gao, Caroline Danielson

The US Department of Agriculture recently announced that it would continue to waive certain restrictions on school meals for the rest of 2020. This extends a key support for many California children, regardless of whether they are in school or learning remotely.

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Challenging Times for California

By Mark Baldassare

The COVID-19 crisis is touching every aspect of life today, and PPIC is providing wide-ranging analyses of its implications across key policy areas, from education to health care, from criminal justice to water policy.

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Feeding Children When Schools Are Closed for COVID-19

By Caroline Danielson, Niu Gao

With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, local, state, and federal officials are taking steps to provide meals to students who usually obtain meals from their school.


Geography of Child Poverty in California

By Caroline Danielson, Sarah Bohn

One-quarter of young children across the state live in poverty. In inland regions, reducing child poverty requires efforts to improve job opportunities. In many coastal regions, increasing access to affordable housing will help.


Improving California Children’s Participation in Nutrition Programs

By Caroline Danielson, Sarah Bohn

Food and nutrition assistance programs help children gain access to adequate amounts of nutritious food—reducing child hunger and food insecurity as well as promoting healthy development. Yet in California, enrollment varies widely across counties and across the main nutrition programs that serve children: CalFresh, popularly known as food stamps; the WIC program, which serves infants and preschool-age children; and school meals, which include lunch and often other meals. Increasing children’s enrollment in CalFresh and achieving healthier outcomes for Californians are priorities for the state. The governor’s January 2016 budget set a goal of enrolling 400,000 more eligible children in CalFresh over two years.

This report assesses children’s eligibility for CalFresh and eligible children’s participation in the three main nutrition programs to explore opportunities for improving enrollment and the benefits of higher enrollment. Key findings include:

  • CalFresh has lower enrollment than free school meals and WIC. In 2015, 24 percent of all California children participated in CalFresh, while more than twice as many age-eligible children (51%) were enrolled in free school meals; 44 percent of infants and 34 percent of young children were enrolled in WIC.
  • There is substantial potential to expand the impact of nutrition programs. We estimate that if all CalFresh-eligible children were fully enrolled in both CalFresh and either free school meals or WIC, these programs would reach 1.6 million more children.
  • Infants and young children are better connected to nutrition programs. Among CalFresh-eligible children, we find that 12 percent of public school students participate in neither CalFresh nor free school meals—more than a quarter million school children (331,000). In contrast, only 4 percent of infants (21,000) and 9 percent of young children (87,000) are disconnected from both CalFresh and WIC.
  • Higher participation in nutrition programs would lower child poverty. Among public school students living in poverty, we project that full participation in nutrition programs would increase family resources by 15 percent. Among infants and young children living in poverty, we project that family resources would increase by 9 percent following full participation in nutrition programs.

To some extent, lower CalFresh enrollment reflects more restrictive eligibility requirements. However, there is good reason to believe that more children participating in free school meals and WIC could be connected to CalFresh. Currently, most policies designed to integrate nutrition programs run from CalFresh to school meals. Building robust, two-way connections could help counties and the state better achieve the goals of these programs so more children have access to adequate, nutritious food.


Math Placement in California’s Public Schools

By Niu Gao, Sara Adan

Last year, the California Legislature passed a new law—the California Mathematics Placement Act—to address widespread concern over equity in the math placement process. The law is aimed at improving the measurement of student performance in order to move more students successfully through the high school curriculum. In this context, we surveyed California’s school districts during the 2015–16 school year to examine their placement policies right before the law took effect and to identify district needs for technical assistance while implementing the new law. We found that:

  • Districts need help in determining how to proceed. Because the law leaves many details open to local interpretation, many districts are unsure about how to handle certain key elements. Teacher recommendations are a good example. Our survey indicates that the majority of districts have relied on recommendations as an important factor in determining placement. But the law now restricts their use. Improving the law’s clarity is critical going forward.
  • Despite uncertainties, most districts are implementing the new law. Among our respondents, 86 percent reported having a systematic math placement policy. Sixty percent said they are somewhat or very familiar with the new law. Among these districts, 51 percent said they were already in compliance and 42 percent reported revising their policies for compliance purposes.
  • Across districts, there is a strong need for valid, reliable, and objective performance measures. This need applies both to assessing student performance and to evaluating district policies. Districts with the largest gains in student course outcomes over a 10-year period provide some insight. These districts are more likely than others to emphasize test scores, math GPA, and overall GPA when assessing student placement. They are also more likely to use end-of-year math grades to evaluate district placement policies.
  • Districts face a number of other challenges. Districts’ concerns range from handling parental expectations, to needing evidence-based performance measures, to creating better policy alignment within and across schools. In addition, equity issues and staffing shortages present ongoing challenges for many districts.

We recommend several actions for helping districts comply with the law and improve their math placement process. These include establishing evidence-based measures, refining the approach to teacher recommendations, and identifying effective placement protocols. In the longer term, districts would benefit from using student data to improve equity issues and from increased staffing, especially in rural and high-need districts.

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