Evaluating the Impact of Kansas At-Risk Funding

Evaluating the Impact of Kansas At-Risk Funding

A new report on at-risk student funding is expected to draw Legislative attention. The number of Kansas students not making adequate progress due to poverty, disability, trauma and other factors has been increasing and the real amount of additional funding for these students has not. Student test scores have tended to follow changes in funding, while other measures have improved.

Here are key points:

  • Kansas provides additional funding for at-risk students, based on the number of low-income students, but used to assist any student with problems in school.
  • The number and percentage of at-risk Kansas students has been rising on multiple measures.
  • Despite recent increases, the actual value of at-risk funding is lower than in previous years, whether measured per pupil, by total inflation adjusted dollars, or share of total funding.
  • Under the current State Board policies for using and approving at-risk dollars, test scores rose when real funding was increasing and declined when funding fell behind inflation.
  • Graduation rates and adult educational attainment have increased, with Kansas ranking above the U.S. average while providing below average per pupil funding and serving an above average percentage of low-income students.

Kansas provides additional funding for at-risk students, based on the number of low-income students, but used to assist any student with problems in school.

Educational research and results have long demonstrated that some students need additional assistance to achieve educational success. Many, but not all, of the reasons are associated with a student’s family income. As a result, Kansas – like most other states – gives school districts additional funding based on the number of low-income students enrolled (Kansas used free lunch eligibility.)

Under Kansas law, districts receive a base amount ($4,165 in 2019) for actual students enrolled. For each student eligible for free meals, they receive the at-risk weighting factor of 0.484, which is multiplied by the base amount. In other words, for each free lunch student, districts received an additional $2,016. For districts, or for individual school buildings, with at least 35 percent of students qualifying for free meals, districts receive an additional “high density” weighting, equal to a maximum of 0.105 times the base.

Although free lunch students determine how much additional funding districts receive, the funding is used to serve students who are actually experiencing challenges in school, whether or not they are eligible for free meals. The State Board of Education must approve how districts use those funds.

The recent Legislative Post Audit study on funding for Kansas at-risk students in the school finance formula has raised two major issues. First, the auditors believe state law requires these funds be used exclusively for at-risk students, while the State Board of Education and Department of Education have allowed these funds to be used in ways that support lower-achieving students but also benefit other students; for example, to pay a portion of a teacher’s salary based on the percentage of at-risk students with whom the teacher works. Second, the Board and department disagree with how the auditors considered the use of evidenced-based research in approving programs.

What the audit did NOT include was a look at the history of at-risk funding and evidence of statewide changes in student performance, particularly among at-risk students. However, the State Board’s policies and process for at-risk funds have been used for decades.

The number and percentage of Kansas students with special needs that may impact learning have increased significantly.

Although not all low-income students struggle in school, research has shown they are much more likely to have difficulties than more economically advantaged students. According to data from the Kansas State Department of Education, the percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals has increased from less than 30 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 2008 and 50 percent in 2015. It has since dropped back to 46 percent as the economy has strengthened.

But there are other measures of student “risk factors” that continue to grow. For example, the number of Kansas students receiving special education services increased by 20.3 percent from 2001 to 2018, four times the rate of increase in all students in Kansas public school districts. Educators say the biggest reason is the growing identification of young children with special needs. The number of three to five-year-old children receiving special education services in Kansas increased by over 4,000, or 52.3 percent, since 2001. While districts receive funding for special education services, it does not cover all of the “excess cost” of educating these students.

There are also more students living in poverty. According to the Kansas Department of Children and Families, the child population of Kansas increased 13.2 percent from 2010 to 2019, but the child poverty rate increased more than twice that rate, 31.6 percent, and the number of children in out-of-home foster care placement increased at more than three times that rate, 43.5 percent.

Finally, more students are facing deep emotional and mental health issues. Data from the Attorney General’s office shows that the youth suicide rate more than doubled from 2005 to 2015, then nearly doubled again by 2018.

The actual value of at-risk funding has been declining, not growing, over the past 5-10 years.

Following the Montoy school finance decision in 2006, the Legislature more than doubled the at-risk weighting factor. Since 2009, however, the inflation-adjusted at-risk weighting amount declined over 23 percent from 2009 to 2017, or $570. It has recovered only $146 of that cut from 2017 to 2019 since the Legislature began responding to the Gannon decision. Base state aid has lost even more value, dropping from $5,326 in 2006 to $4,165 in 2019 (inflation adjusted).

In addition, total dollars spent on both regular at-risk funding and high-density at-risk funding, when adjusted for inflation, peaked at nearly $427 million in 2014, dropping to just $413 million in 2019, largely as a result of fewer students qualifying for free meals.

Finally, total at-risk funding as a share both of total school district expenditures and general fund, local option budget and special education funding only has been declining since 2014, from 6.6 percent of total funding to 6.2 percent; and from 9.7 percent of general fund, local option budget and special education aid to 9.2 percent in 2019.

As the Legislature increased funding following the Montoy decision, student results on both state and national tests increased, then declined as school funding declined in inflation-adjusted dollars.

On the state’s previous reading and math assessments, the percent of students meeting the minimum standard rose from about 80 percent in 2007 to 86 percent in 2013. Low income students improved even more, from 69 percent to over 79 percent in 2012 (State Department of Education reports did not separate non-low-income students).

Following an inflation-adjusted reduction of almost 9 percent in total school funding in 2010 to 2013, assessment results leveled off then dropped sharply in 2013.

Kansas did not give valid assessments in 2014 as a new testing system was developed. From 2015 to 2017, K-12 funding continued to lag behind inflation (including the two-year block grants that froze funding). On the new testing program beginning in 2015, the percentage of tests at Level 2 or higher, sometimes called “grade level,” dropped from 86.5 to 82.5 percent in 2017 for non-low-income students (those paying full meal prices), and from 66.5 to 58.5 percent for low income students.

Since 2017, when the state began increasing school funding again, state test scores leveled off, and the gap between low- and higher-income students has remained about the same.

Since 2003, the National Assessment of Educational Progress has tested a small sample of Fourth and Eighth grade students in each state in reading and math every other year. For Kansas, it shows a similar pattern improving scores until 2013, then a decline. Low-income and non-low-income students were improving at approximately the same rate, but low-income student scores have declined more since 2011.

Since 2010, Kansas high school graduation rates have improved, and most “at-risk” groups have improved faster than the overall average.

Since 2010, Kansas and other states have used a method called the “Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate” to measure high school graduation rates. Essentially, AGCR tracks the percentage of students in each graduating class, or cohort, that complete high school within four years of their freshman year.

Using the most recent data from 2018, many groups of students lag behind the overall state average, including those on free meals.

However, since 2010, most lower-performing groups improved at a faster rate than the overall average, resulting in a narrowing of the gap over the past 8 years.

Although the number of “at-risk” students in Kansas increased much faster than overall enrollment, Kansas has continued to improve educational attainment by young adults and ranks high among states.

The U.S. Census reports annual estimates of state residents ages 18-24 who have completed high school, have any postsecondary participation, and have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (Similar information is provided for residents over age 24).

From 2006 to 2018, the percent of young Kansans completing high school has increased from 85.4 to 89.4 percent, with Kansas ranking 12 out of 50 states.

From 2010 to 2018, the percent of young Kansans with any postsecondary education increased from 57.9 to 59.2 percent, with Kansas ranking eighth among all states (tied with Nebraska).

From 2010 to 2018, the percent of young Kansans with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 8.7 to 11.1 percent, with Kansas ranking 22nd (tied with Michigan).

Kansas has ranks above average in each measure of educational attainment, but total funding per pupil is below average (30th in 2017).

Although the U.S. Census does not break out attainment data by factors such as income level, Kansas is also higher than average in the percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Conclusion

The number and percentage of at-risk Kansas students has been rising. Despite recent increases, the actual value of at-risk funding is lower than in previous years, whether measured per pupil, by total inflation adjusted dollars, or share of total funding. Under the current State Board policies for using and approving at-risk dollars, test scores rose when real funding was increasing and declined when funding fell behind inflation. Graduation rates and adult educational attainment have increased, with Kansas ranking above the U.S. average while providing below average per pupil funding and serving an above average percentage of low-income students.