A Senate panel led by an East Valley lawmaker agreed Tuesday to let schools opt out of the federal program to offer free and reduced-price lunches for needy students.
Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, said the state should not be imposing these mandates on public schools. He said the decision whether to participate in the National School Lunch Program - and deal with the various restrictions - is best left to local school officials.
Crandall said some districts, particularly those with only a small percentage of eligible children, may decide to continue to offer the free or discounted meals, but on their own terms, and with local taxpayers picking up the tab. But he said that, in some cases, schools may scrap the program entirely, meaning that children who want the service will have to transfer to other schools that still offer it.
The move drew fire from Jennifer Loredo, lobbyist for the Arizona Education Association.
"For a lot of students that we have out here in the state, the school lunch program that they are provided is the only quality meal that they get," she told members of the Senate Education Committee.
But the panel voted to approve SB 1060 on a 6-1 vote, with only Sen. David Schapira, D-Tempe, opposed. The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Crandall said his concern is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, is crafting new regulations that "could be burdensome."
For example, he said that the USDA has been scrutinizing some school districts where what they are charging regular students for lunch is less than the government is providing in subsidies. Crandall said that has led to questions of whether the USDA is effectively subsidizing lunches for students who can afford to buy their own food.
"So who gets hurt the worst under this mandate is the middle income; people who don't qualify for free and reduced-price lunch are just above it," he said.
Crandall also said there are new requirements for fresh fruit at breakfasts that are offered under the program.
Ginny Hildebrand, chief executive of the Arizona Association of Food Banks, said Crandall's assurances that most school districts will remain in the program provides little comfort.
"We know hungry kids have trouble learning," she told lawmakers. "We know teachers that have hungry kids in their class have trouble meeting their teaching objectives."
Loredo suggested that if lawmakers want to let schools opt out of the USDA program they should at least replace it with some requirement for schools to offer similar programs without the federal rules. Crandall, who chairs the committee, said he will not do that.
"I'm not going to take away one mandate and replace it with another," he said.
Crandall said that was the lesson lawmakers learned in allowing the creation of charter schools. These schools, most privately operated, are public schools and get state aid. But they are exempt from most of the regulations the state imposes on traditional public schools.
In this case, he noted, the charter schools which educate about 135,000 youngsters in Arizona are exempt from the law on school lunches, though some do participate.
"We're trying to take the same flexibility they have with regards to the National School Lunch Program and apply it to districts," Crandall said.
And he said he's not worried about what will happen to the affected children.
"That's where I have complete confidence the local school board's going to take care of that," Crandall said. He said many will decide they are willing to provide free lunches, "but on our own terms."
Crandall did agree to amend his legislation when it reaches the Senate floor to require any district proposing to opt out to first notify the parents.