••• Education •••

Latest audit report excoriates state at-risk program at all levels: “little appears to have changed”

For the second time in four years, Legislative Post Audit (LPA) has castigated the State Board of Education, KSDE, and a variety of school districts in the administration of the state’s education charge targeted toward at-risk students. Among the findings in Evaluating At-Risk Expenditures and Statutory Compliance, which was released in July of this year, were violations of state law both programmatically and fiscally in administering the $400+ million annual program. What is perhaps most alarming is that LPA found many similar problems in the 2019 audit, but those in charge of managing the at-risk program essentially ignored their findings and recommendations. Included in the new audit is this damning statement: “none of the recommendations we made in the 2019 audit were adequately implemented.” In fact, because of the findings in the 2019 audit, the Legislature asked LPA to conduct another audit of the at-risk program.

The following are lowlights from the 2023 audit.

“None of the KSDE-approved programs we reviewed met the statutory criteria necessary to be included on the list.”

State law K.S.A. 72-5153 requires the state board to publish a list of evidence-based at-risk practices and programs. They haven’t followed that law. LPA evaluated 40 of the programs that were on the state board’s approved list of acceptable programs. Not one passed statutory muster.

Here are several descriptions of the approved evidence-based, best practices at-risk programs for school districts to adopt:

  • “little or no evidence of effectiveness”
  • “did not appear to meet the purpose of at-risk programs”
  • “KSDE staff do not appear to follow their own rules for ensuring that research is peer reviewed.”
  • “The board does not appear to provide any oversight to KSDE’s list of approved programs.”

It’s important to keep in mind that “evidence-based” or “best practices” programs in and of themselves would not necessarily improve student outcomes, it’s the cavalier attitude of the state board and KSDE toward state law compliance and their inattentiveness to the lack of improvement in at-risk student achievement that is the real problem.

“About 30% of the $5.2 million in expenditures we reviewed did not adhere to statutory spending rules.”

LPA sampled (not randomly) 20 districts in this audit iteration. Districts spend their at-risk allotments on a variety of services. LPA reviewed 179 expenditures and found that 30% of the money spent violated state spending rules. LPA made it clear that the 30% amount cannot be extrapolated to the entirety of the at-risk program because the sampling is not random. However, it is important to note that LPA picked Wichita (USD 259) and Kansas City (USD 500), the largest and fifth largest districts, respectively, in the state. They found merely 21% of Wichita’s expenditure met compliance and only 38% of Kansas City’s likewise. Can you imagine the outcry from the educrats if 30% of any type of expenditure in a school choice option was revealed to be out of compliance?

“Students eligible for free lunches have generally performed more poorly than other students over the last several years.”

This soft-sell statement is certainly no revelation, as KPI has written ad nauseum about achievement gaps. However, it is refreshing to see that LPA is throwing a spotlight on this reality. A reality that is largely ignored by the state board and KSDE. Among all the findings in this and any other at-risk program, this is the most important one in the audit. Afterall, programmatic and financial considerations are without question critical, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Ultimately, the findings from the new audit summarize the state of the Kansas at-risk program: (1) The state board has not followed state law in providing best practices programs for districts. (2) In turn, schools are not utilizing best practices approaches in serving at-risk students. (3) As a result, a significant proportion of at-risk dollars are not targeted exclusively to at-risk students. (4) Finally, at-risk (for funding) students continue to perform much worse on state assessments.

To that last point, a fundamental issue with the at-risk program is that there are two definitions: (1) for funding purposes, the “at-risk” designation is any student who qualifies for free school lunch and (2) for the purpose of getting services, “at-risk” is a designation given by the school for students who are struggling academically.  Statewide, the at-risk program continues to conspicuously demonstrate an absence of improving achievement for struggling students.

This is nothing new, as documented by a thorough examination of the at-risk program published by KPI in 2015.  KSDE’s lack of interest in even identifying the academic achievement of “at-risk” students is manifested in the absence of an “at-risk” subgroup among the 19 subgroups tracked on state assessments.  The state only tracks the surrogate for those students, those who generate at-risk dollars due to qualifying for free lunch.

Instead of focusing on outcomes, the emphasis is on providing services. LPA mentions that even state law says: K.S.A. 72-5151(c) notes that the purpose of at-risk funding is to provide at-risk students with services that are in addition to regular instructional services.

The two LPA audits published a mere four years apart, substantiate that the board and KSDE are patently derelict in following statutory requirements and are lack the moral and fiduciary obligations to see that the roughly $400 million spent annually on the program is targeted to those for whom the program was established. To wit:

  • “none of the recommendations…made in the 2019 audit were adequately implemented.”
  • There is “no evidence that the board has taken a larger role in overseeing the approval process.”

One cannot help but wonder: Where was Commissioner Watson on this?

And with no consequences for both misfeasance and malfeasance on the part of the board, KSDE, and school districts across the state, there is only one logical path forward. A new model, one that is truly created to improve the achievement of those at-risk of academic failure, must be created.

Next: A new at-risk program model.