A new report from the Legislature’s Post Audit Division raises questions about how Kansas school districts are using state aid earmarked to help students struggling in school, sometimes called “at-risk” students. It’s important to understand how these programs currently operate, what results school districts are getting, and what potential changes might mean.
The state gives districts additional money based on the number of students who qualify for free meals. Studies and actual results show that lower income students are much more likely to struggle in school. However, after districts receive the money, they spend it to help students actually having problems in school or facing other issues that affect learning, such as homelessness, absenteeism or social and emotion issues, regardless of whether they receive free meals.
The new audit suggests that under state law, all at-risk dollars – over $400 million – should be used exclusively to serve identified at-risk students in separate programs. The elected State Board of Education, which is responsible for overseeing the program, disagrees. It says funding can be used for programs that benefit at-risk students but can also help non-at-risk students.
Kansas expanded at-risk funding significantly in the late 2000’s, and results for all students, from graduation rates to test scores, improved. In fact, on some measures, low income students improved faster. But beginning in 2010, both general school funding and at-risk aid began to fall behind inflation. After several years of budget cuts, test results began to decline as districts cut staff positions, eliminated programs and salaries fell behind other states and professions. In 2018 the state began to increase funding again in response to the Gannon school finance decision, but the plan approved by the Legislature and Supreme Court isn’t expected to restore inflation-adjusted funding to 2009 levels until 2023.
Let’s be clear: Kansas, like all states, needs to improve educational attainment of at-risk students. School leaders must continue to look for ways to improve and seek out the latest research on effective programs and practices. The State Board of Education has launched a school redesign program focused on balancing academic skills and social emotional growth; stronger family and community partnerships; personalized learning and real-world applications. These principles will help at-risk students, but they support all students.
There is already some good news. After the first two years of a six-year funding plan, the decline in test scores has leveled off. High school graduation rates have been rising and more students are attending and completing college and technical education programs. These improvements have occurred even as the number of low-income and special needs students have increased over the past decade.
Despite funding challenges, school districts have achieved these results by using at-risk funding for both special targeted programs and supporting regular education teachers in regular classrooms through a variety of techniques. Many of these efforts are designed to help both at-risk and not-at-risk students improve. The audit found districts spend more on these programs than they receive in state aid.
Under current practice, school districts must present plans to the State Board of Education showing how they are using at-risk funds to benefit at-risk students and the research supporting those plans. For example, if a teacher has 50 students in class identified as at-risk, 50 percent of the teacher’s salary may be paid by at-risk funds. However, the districts must show what programs and practices that teachers will use to serve those students. The State Department of Education reviews and approves those plans.
Limiting funding to exclusively at-risk students implies these students would have to be “pulled out” of regular education classrooms to receive services. Not only classroom teachers but also counselors, social workers and other programs could only be supported by at-risk funding if they worked exclusively for at-risk students.
That could potentially harm services for all students. For example, an at-risk student might have access to a new after-school math tutoring program, but to pay for that service, the district would have to cut regular education positions and salaries, so that same student might have a larger math class during the regular school day and a less qualified teacher.
In high poverty school districts, more students are identified as at-risk due to poverty or other factors than not at-risk. Those districts also have more difficulty in hiring staff.
Kansas schools are working to improve the success of all students, both those currently doing well and those who lagging behind. The Legislature has begun restoring funding to support those efforts. The Legislature, State Board and local school boards should continue that focus.