The very first vote out of the House Education Committee on Friday was an uncharacteristically party line affair with four Republicans lined up against seven Dems.
The subject that prompted the partisan divide? Free lunches for students now paying a reduced price for school cafeteria food. The expanded program would obviate the need for students to pay 40 cents for a burger in the lunch line, and it would cost the state about $350,000 a year out of total annual education expenditures of $1.3 billion. The House bill, H.60, is sponsored by more than 50 lawmakers and has the backing of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who highlighted free lunches for public schoolchildren as part of his education agenda this year.
Rep. Johanna Donovan, D-Burlington, the committee chair, who prides herself on building consensus among GOPers and Democrats, said in the last biennium, she said, “almost every” bill came out of committee in a nonpartisan fashion. “For me this personally was incredibly disappointing,” Donovan said. “We had worked so well together. It was just a pleasure. Not that we didn’t have disagreements, but we worked them out and found common ground.”
The split, she says, weakens the committee’s hand for the next step in the process: Explaining to the House Appropriations Committee why the program should be funded.
“I was hoping to get a stronger vote,” Donovan said. “Increasing participation makes sense. When kids have something to eat they do better in school. Some kids have to dig into their pockets for 25 cents, and there’s a stigma with that and especially at the high school level they choose not to eat.”
Donovan says the committee heard no testimony against the bill. She said she hopes this isn’t an indication of how Republicans will “end up doing business this year.”
Rep. Don Turner, minority leader of the House and a member of the education committee, is taking an all or nothing stance on the governor’s education plan. He says GOP members want to know what the entire proposal would cost and how the administration plans to pay for new education initiatives.
“We made it clear we didn’t want to vote on it piecemeal,” Turner said. The representative from Milton said he and his colleagues don’t oppose the expansion of the school lunch program per se. He says he wants to see a package proposal of all of the reforms with one pricetag.
“There’s a lot of talk about education reform, and it’s all down in bits and pieces,” Turner said. “We don’t want to get caught voting on it in bits and pieces. We don’t have a big picture view of what the whole change is going to cost.”
Turner said he didn’t know why the committee was “rushing” to vote on school lunch as a standalone bill.
“It’s a little bit of money, but it’s still an expansion of a program in a very tight budget year with lots of talk of expansion of programs in my opinion,” Turner said on Friday. “Why vote it out today? Why not vote out as a package?”
The reduced lunch program is made available to families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, eligible income is $30,000 to $42,600. In the 2011-2012 school year, roughly 60 percent of eligible students, or 3,539, received reduced price lunches.
Laurie Colgan, director of child nutrition programs for the Agency of Education, expects the participation rate among students getting reduced-price lunch to jump by 25 percent if the bill passes. The projection is based on the rise in school breakfast participation after Vermont passed a law in 2008 that made breakfast free for reduced-price students.
The school lunch bill, which calls for $322,250 from the General Fund, anticipates a 25 percent increase in its federal funding allocation. The federal government reimburses schools $2.52 per reduced-price meal.