As noted in Part 1 of this series, students from lower income families (eligible for free or reduced-price meals) score much lower on reading and math tests and have lower graduation rates than higher income students. This part shows how the state school finance formula provides additional funding for students based on the number of low-income students, but districts use that funding to help any at-risk students, regardless of income.
Current at-risk funding is based on the number of lower income students, but the students actually receiving services are identified mostly based on academic factors.
The Kansas school finance formula provides school districts with funding that must be used to help students identified as “at risk” due to various criteria. The amount of at-risk funding each district receives is based primarily on the number of students in the district who qualify for free meals under the National School Lunch Program. Additional funding, called “high density” at-risk weighting, is provided for districts and for individual school buildings with more than 35 percent of students on free meals. Finally, funding is provided for three- and four-year-old preschool students who meet at-risk criteria, with the number based the amount of money appropriated by the state.
Kansas has used the free lunch eligible student count to calculate the amount of at-risk aid a district receives since the landmark 1992 school finance lawsuit created the system basically still in place. The amount of funding is determined by three factors. First is the “weighting factor,” which is multiplied by the base funding per pupil. Second is the dollar amount of base state aid per pupil. Third is number of students counted.
For example, last year, the “regular” at-risk factor was 0.484, multiplied by the base state aid per pupil amount $4,165 equaled $2,016 for each free-lunch eligible student. Multiplied by 179,638 students eligible for free meals, the statewide amount of at-risk funding was $362 million. Districts with more than 50 percent of students eligible for free meals receive an additional 0.105 weighting for each such student. Districts below 50 percent receive a sliding amount that is phased-out at 35 percent. High density weighting may also be applied to individual school buildings. Total high density weighting statewide is $51 million. The state also provided $16.8 million for at-risk pre-kindergarten students.
The amount of at-risk funding has risen dramatically because each component has increased. The weighting factor was increased from 0.01 to nearly 0.484 over the past 25 years, with preschool at-risk funding and high density funding added during those years. Base state aid increased from $3,600 in 1993 to $4,165. The number of students who qualify has increased from about one in three to nearly 50 percent in the middle of the past decade, although the number has dropped as the economy improved after the Great Recession. (See chart below)
It is important to stress, however, that the number of free lunch students only determines the amount of money each district receives for at-risk programs. The students actually receiving these services must qualify based on various criteria set by the State Board of Education, such as not being at grade level or not on track to graduate. In other words, a free lunch eligible student does not receive at-risk services unless he or she meets those criteria, and a higher income student who does not receive free meals may qualify for at-risk services. (State Board guidelines for these programs can be found at this link.)
School district differences
If lower income students were equally distributed among all school districts, all districts would face similar challenges in trying to help these students do better. However, the percentage of free/reduced price meal eligible students is NOT evenly distributed, ranging for a low 10 percent or less to a high or over 80 percent. The range for individual school buildings is even higher, from under five percent to over 95 percent.
Districts with higher numbers of low income students are likely to have more at-risk students and need more resources to help them. In fact, there is a very strong statistical negative correlation between free (or reduce reduced) meal students and academic performance. For the most part, schools that are labeled as “failing” because of low test scores and graduation rates simply have much higher percentages of low-income students.
How are needs other student groups addressed?
Low income students aren’t the only populations that have average lower performance. African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students have lower average scores than the total population. However, these groups also have much higher poverty: American Indian, Black and Hispanics in Kansas had poverty rates around 24 percent from 2012 to 2016, more than double the white poverty rate of 10.4 percent over that period. As a result, districts with high poverty also enroll more non-white students, and receive more at-risk funding.
There are several other aid programs or weightings directed at student groups that are based on the services provided, rather than income levels of students. The first is special education state aid, which helps provide services to students who quality, based on an Individual Education Plan, or IEP, under federal law and regulations. The state provides nearly $500 million special education aid annually, which is primarily distributed to districts and special education cooperatives based on the number of special education teachers and paraprofessional they employ, and to pay for transportation costs of students and teachers.
A second program is the bilingual education weighting, which provides funding to assist students who do not speak English as their first language. The state provides over $42 million annual, based on either the number of students in the district receiving these services, or the “contact hours” where a student is receiving instruction from a certified bilingual instructor, whichever is greater.
A new program entering its second year is the Mental Health Intervention Pilot Program. Initially, funding was directed to districts and schools chosen by the Legislature. This year, additional districts where allowed to compete for funds. The state is providing $10 million annually to allow those districts to hire behavioral health specialists, provide mental health services to underinsured and uninsured students with mental health issues, and draw down federal matching funds.
School districts also received federal funding for special education services and “Title I” services that are similar to at-risk programs.