versus administrative procedures, while others arise because the procedures are intended to obtain different data. For example, the ACS collects data on income received in the past 12 months on a rolling basis. Thus households interviewed in January report on income received during the period from the previous January through December, while households interviewed in December report on income received during the period from the previous December through November. In contrast, school meals program applications obtain data on current monthly income, which will typically be income for the month in which the application is being completed or the previous month—probably July, August, or September for most students. Even if the data obtained by the ACS and by program applications are fully accurate, eligibility based on annual income can be different from eligibility and certification based on monthly income. Yet another difference is that the ACS records where students live, while school meals program certification data are based on where students attend school. In areas with school choice options, such as charter and magnet schools or open enrollment policies, some students may not attend their neighborhood school or even any school in the district in which they reside. This phenomenon will be captured in the administrative data but not the ACS data.
The second section of the chapter presents the panel’s analysis of the precision, intertemporal stability, and timeliness, as well as the general relative performance, of the alternative estimates from the ACS, including the 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and model-based estimates. As discussed in Chapter 3, stability in reimbursement is important to districts because it facilitates budgeting and other planning activities involved in operating the school meals programs. Nonetheless, some instability in reimbursement occurs naturally under traditional operating procedures as a result of changes in certification percentages and participation rates from year to year due to ups and downs in the economy, outreach efforts by school authorities, and other factors. However, basing reimbursements on ACS estimates will introduce additional instability due to sampling variability and other sources of error that cause estimates to fluctuate. Because they are based on larger samples and average the data collected in different years, 5-year ACS estimates will tend to be more precise and stable than 3-year estimates, which will be more precise and stable than 1-year estimates. However, the precision and stability carry a cost: the 5-year estimates and, to a lesser degree, the 3-year estimates will be less timely and less responsive to real changes in socioeconomic conditions. The panel’s analyses explored these trade-offs.
The panel also explored the role of participation—that is, the purchase or free receipt of meals by students. Participation is important because it is the basis for reimbursing districts for the meals they serve