At Risk School Funding 101

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Note: this is the first blog in a series on the issue of at risk funding and accompanies a comprehensive KPI at risk research project.

Funding for public schools is a complicated proposition.

There are many factors that go into determining just how much money school districts will receive and where it will come from every year from state and local sources. There are property taxes, state equalization, local options, and so many more considerations that it takes 93 columns on the master spreadsheet used by the Kansas Department of Education to sort it all out! And that doesn’t even count federal money.

One piece of this funding puzzle is the “weighting” formula the state uses to adjust (increase) the amount of money that will go to each district based on certain characteristics of a) students (e.g. the number in vocational education) and b) the district (e.g. low or high enrollment). I presented the weighting formula in an earlier blog where you can see the formula in its entirety.

One part of that formula determines how much extra money goes to districts under the banner of “at risk.” So what is this at risk funding? It provides extra dollars to schools based on the number of economically disadvantaged students enrolled. It is rooted in a philosophy, and research has attempted to support, that it costs more to adequately educate poor students. That ideal is operationalized (quantified) by using the number of students who qualify for free lunch under the United States Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Some states also include the number of students who qualify for reduced lunch cost under NSLP. Nearly all states use the school lunch program in some form as a basis for determining their versions of at risk population.

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This graphic shows how it works under current Kansas law. Base state aid per pupil (BSAPP) is $3,852. A student who qualifies for a free lunch is presently weighted at an additional 45.6% of BSAPP and generates $5,609. (I say presently because at risk weightings have increased over time – more on that in the next blog.) Additionally, if more than half the students in a district are free lunch students a supplementary 10.5% weighting is added ($6,013). Currently, that applies to 57 of the state’s 286 school districts. One hundred four districts get a smaller, sliding scale additional percentage because they have between 35% and 50% at-risk students (more than $5,609 but less than $6,013). One hundred twenty five districts get no ADDITIONAL at risk money. Then, in order to determine the exact dollar amount a district will receive, the total weighted percentage is multiplied by the current BSAPP ($3,852 per pupil for 2015).

I told you it’s complicated.

Coincidentally, it is actually simpler than previous years because the legislature passed a law that eliminated a small at risk category in the 2014 session.

To show exactly how free lunch turns into at risk dollars, I present the following table that shows at risk funding for seven selected school districts that reveals the funding impact at risk dollars can have.

2014-2015 At risk data for selected districts

District

District

Total 

At risk

At risk

High Den

Total

Total At risk

Number

Name

Enrollment

Headcount

Weighted

At risk

At risk

Dollars 

103

Cheylin

137.0

63

28.7

2.6

31.3

$120,568

218

Elkhart

504.1

213

97.1

10.9

108.0

$416,016

235

Uniontown

435.5

220

100.3

23.1

123.4

$475,337

250

Pittsburg

2,881.0

1,794

818.1

188.1

1,006.2

$3,876,036

259

Wichita

47,336.8

33,676

15,356.3

3,536.0

18,892.3

$72,773,140

415

Hiawatha

838.7

385

175.6

29.4

205.0

$789,660

489

Hays

2,811.1

910

415.0

0.0

415.0

$1,598,580

Source: Kansas Department of Education

Wichita, by far the biggest school district in the state, gets over $72 million per year. Pittsburg and Hays have virtually identical enrollments, but Pittsburg gets nearly $2.3 million more at risk money than Hays because Pittsburg has nearly twice the number of free lunch students, but more than twice as many weighted free lunch students. For the entire state the total at risk funding is just over $395 million.

That’s a lot of money, even in government terms.

One of the core issues associated with at risk funding is how it impacts student achievement, especially in light of the numerous and significant increases in at risk funding over the years (to be presented in the next blog). We will examine in depth what previous KPI research has shown to have limited positive effect.

Next: How did we get here? A look at the research and realities of additional funding for educating the economically disadvantaged.

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