Elizabeth Free Lunch Scandal Could Cost Poor School Districts

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State Sen. Michael J. Doherty

State Sen. Michael J. Doherty

TRENTON – A Republican state Senator is pointing to the latest charges filed in connection with alleged fraud in the Elizabeth school district’s free lunch program as another reason to change the state’s school funding formula.

“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 state Sen. Michael Doherty, whose district includes towns in two of New Jersey’s wealthiest counties, Hunterdon and Somerset. “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.

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.

“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.”

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, Doherty further noted.

Doherty is the sponsor of the “Fair School Funding plan,” which would provide every child in the state with an equal share of state education aid, regardless of where they live. Since the original Abbott v. Burke case in the 1980s, New Jersey’s poorest school districts have received additional funding aimed at evening out the disparities between what poor urban and wealthy suburban local taxpayers could spend. New Jersey’s constitution guarantees all students access to a “thorough and efficient” education


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