Audit raises issues in at-risk funding; KSDE defends practices

The Kansas Legislative Post Audit Division released a report Monday criticizing the State Department of Education’s oversight and guidance of the state’s $413 million program to support academically at-risk students. KSDE strongly disagreed. 

The audit is one of series of studies commissioned by the Kansas Legislature in response to the Gannon school finance case. At-risk funding is particularly important because a key part of the Gannon case was that too many Kansas students are failing to meet state academic standards. 

In addition, the “high density” at-risk weighting factor, which accounts for about $50 million in at-risk aid targeted at districts with higher percentages of free lunch students, will “sunset” after this year unless the Legislature extends it, which will likely increase focus on at-risk funding issues. 

Districts receive at-risk funding based on the number students eligible for free meals under the National Student Lunch Program but provide services to students based on various academic and other measures of need. The audit noted that the 20 districts studied spent more on at-risk programs than they received in state aid. Districts must use at-risk funds for programs approved by KSDE. 

The audit found that districts spent most of their at-risk funds on regular classroom teachers. KSDE guidelines allows district to use at-risk funds to pay teacher salaries in proportion to the number of at-risk students. For example, if a school has 30% of students identified as at-risk, then 30% of classroom teacher salaries may be paid with at-risk funds. 

However, the auditors say state law and KSDE guidelines indicate at-risk funds are to be used for services “above and beyond” what non-at-risk students receive, and that KSDE does not effectively track the specific additional services provided to such students. 

Further, the auditors criticized KSDE for approved school programs they believe lack a clear research base of effectiveness. For example, many districts say they are using at-risk dollars to reduce or keep low class size. But the audit reported mixed evidence on the effectiveness of class-size reduction. 

Under state law, the State Board of Education is supposed to identify and approve evidence-based practices for at-risk programs and for the instruction of at-risk students. The audit report says the approved practices appear to be “good practices or resources for teaching generally,” but said according to statute, “the practices the board is supposed to identify and approve are programs and practices related to the instruction of at-risk students.” 

In a written response and remarks to the committee, KSDE representatives said they were confident their practices complied with the law and said that practices supporting general education supported at-risk students as well. They said forcing districts to provide at-risk services exclusively through separate or “pull out” programs would be more expensive or impractical in many districts. 

KSDE said that rather than only “pre-approving” a list of acceptable programs, it evaluated districts programs as part of school district accreditation and other accountability reports and used federal information resources to evaluate effectiveness. 

The audit found that KSDE correctly calculated at-risk funding according to state law. It found a small portion of at-risk expenditures by districts did not appear to be related by at-risk programs. 

The report also found that most other states use a poverty measure similar to Kansas to determine at-risk funding. 

Although the report did not speak to results nor the impact of at-risk funding, House K-12 Education Budget Committee Chair Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, a member of the Legislative Post Audit Committee, said the audit was troubling because Kansas schools have failed to improve the performance of lowincome students, despite increased at-risk funding, suggesting stronger oversight of at-risk funding was needed. 

For more information on Kansas at-risk funding and related issues: 

Equity in Student Success – Part 1: Impact of student and family income 

Equity in Student Success – Part 2: How Kansas funds extra support for at-risk students 

Equity in Student Success – Part 3: Legislative Post Audit Studying At-Risk Funding 

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