Public Policy Forum Blog

School breakfast and school budgets

An article in today's Journal Sentinel about the universal breakfast program in some city of Milwaukee public schools (MPS) schools focuses on the notion that breakfast is expected to improve a child's achievement level. There are doubters to this notion, who point out that the breakfasts served to every student in the classroom take time out of the instructional day. Maybe the value of school breakfast for an individual student's achievement level is not the right frame for evaluating this program. From my own experience as an education researcher and an MPS parent, universal school breakfast seems like it could have a more immediate beneficial impact on a school's budget.

Let me explain. For three years during the implementation of the Neighborhood Schools Initiative, my fellow PPF researchers and I made case study observations at four MPS schools. What struck us all the most were the complicated logistics of running a school. Principals spend an extraordinary amount of time on things that impact how the school operates during the school day...which obviously has an indirect effect on what goes on in the classroom...but all the principals we worked with expressed a desire to have more time to spend on pedagogy. Figuring out how many lunch hours to have, how to get the 8th graders in and out of the lunch room without running over the kindergartners, and when certain grades could be on the playground at the same time, on which days, were all issues that needed attention. And all those movements of classes and recesses and lunch hours have to be supervised by someone. The teachers' contract controls how much time teachers can spend on those types of out-of-classroom supervisory functions, so paraprofessionals and administrators are often the ones doing the supervising.

This year, at my son's school, Elm Creative Arts, budget cuts threatened some of the arts specials that are at the heart of the school's mission and curriculum. So a very creative school administration and governance council decided to keep the curriculum intact by getting rid of one lunch period. Once they've finished their lunch, younger children go to recess and older students can participate in sports or arts "clubs" until the lunch period is over. This simple change was expected to save the school about $10,000. But it also meant that for the younger children, lunch came later in the day than they had been used to.

So here's where school breakfast comes in. By ensuring that every student starts the school day with a good breakfast, schools with the facilities to do so may be able to offer one lunch period. Elm has seen the positive impact a single lunch period can have on the school budget. Of course, the costs of offering the heavily-subsidized breakfast program would have to be outweighed by the savings in order for the change to make sense from a budgetary standpoint. But if breakfast can potentially improve student achievement, while also improving a school's bottom line, then it seems like a good business to be in.

Anneliese Dickman