How many children in LAUSD are “poor”? What does poverty look like in LAUSD; how is it concentrated? It turns out that no one actually knows the answer to these questions because: (i) it’s hard to count this characteristic for a variety of social and cultural reasons, but moreover and critically, (ii) no one has ever really asked. Not directly, that is.

Instead LAUSD asks a related, but crucially different question. They ask: “would you like to enroll your child in the free or reduced lunch (FRL) program”? And this derivative question is what is relied upon, inappropriately, as a surrogate measure for the underlying fundamental issue of primary interest, namely: poverty.

If only I had a penny for every person who has informed me they would never apply to the FRL program because they would never permit their child to partake of its institutional food offerings. The response is fair enough, but only with a GIANT caveat: family participation in the FRL program has far-reaching budgetary implications far, far beyond any given personal family’s finances. Their child’s school’s budget relies in critical measure on the counting of poverty in the community, because it is through this food program – tangentially related to poverty though it may be — that LAUSD officially measures the extent of poverty in its district.

There is federal money, so called Title I funds, available for “Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged”. This is grant money intended to supplement — not supplant — local monies “to provide additional academic support and learning opportunities to help low-achieving children master challenging curricula and meet state standards in core academic subjects”. This money is disbursed to local school districts, which are responsible for further local distribution. And therein lies the problem – how that money gets distributed throughout our vast LAUSD depends on how poverty is distributed throughout the schools. And how we count and track that condition is problematic, reliant on a surrogate measure, incompletely collected, never explained.

Two winters ago when the pinch on educational monies was at its squeeziest, it transpired that LAUSD simply did not have enough money to budget for all its so-called “Title I schools” – those schools with a percentage of FRL-eligible students greater than 40%. To make ends meet, the definition of a “Title I school” was changed overnight, from 40% FRL-eligible to 50% FRL-eligible. This decision was made after the count of student’s FRL eligibility was completed, so the circumstance of parents not applying for the FRL program for their own personal reasons independent of financial need, could no longer be addressed; the deadline was passed.

Overnight on the order of two dozen schools lost monies that were substantial proportions of their respective schools’ total operating budgets. This happened in schools where 4-5 out of 10 students were deemed “poor” by this flawed measure of counting. And it happened in these schools because the poverty concentration was relatively meager there; these were the schools of insufficiently concentrated poverty to merit Title I funds under the district’s new, emaciated Title I budgeting procedure.

The hardship imposed was considerable, with one-time funds materialized at a reduced rate without altering Title I status, in order to mitigate consequences of the harsh insta-un-funded year, 2012-13 (this was the budgeted year but the shortfall was felt in 2011-12).

And another interesting effect has emerged subsequently, because pursuing poverty supplemental funding by encouraging full application from FRL-eligible families turns out to be the most successful fundraiser most schools could ever hope to conduct. As a consequence of the district imposing an ever-earlier artificial deadline for the surrogate count of poverty masked as eligibility for the FRL program, right around now you, too can amuse yourself with the sight of me and dozens of my parent-counterparts scattered throughout the district scurrying after fellow parents during early morning kid drop-off time, begging and pleading with fellow parents to submit FRL applications, by “yesterday”. Because it turns out that along with this arbitrary and too-early deadline imposed by the district to functionally suppress budgets among some of our district’s most successful schools, that actual application deadline for a surrogate measure moves. One week it is announced to be, say, October 4, then October 2, then September 20 then whoops – back up to September 25, 2013 (for budgeted year 2014-15). It’s never really clear whether that date, whatever it is, is a “postmarked by” date, or an “in the pile” date or a “processed by” date.

All that is clear is that enormous stress is experienced around a deadline that is arbitrary, plastic, imposed for a surrogate measure with sequelae of the highest possible stakes. Without these Title I funds dozens of schools will see themselves face operations with insufficient money for school health aides, or tutoring, or after school programs: on and on.

These arbitrary, knife-edge, coarsely imposed and clumsily implemented rules matter. LAUSD should figure out an honest way to track and supplement funding for low-income learners, as specified by federal mandate. And it should be done transparently, fairly, without the high-stakes drama and unseemly do-or-die hard-scrabbling the district imposes artificially on its stakeholders.

When I sign my kids up for school, it is not to participate in political brinksmandship surrounding our schools’ very budget. Schools need clear-cut, transparent rules that honestly address the question at hand. If it is important to know how many children are poor, then ask for income. Do not ask about something else, and play games shrouding the whole endeavor.