New school finance law will do nothing to improve outcomes of at-risk students

David DorseyEducationLeave a Comment

The Legislature blew it. Given a golden opportunity to give serious attention to the issue of low performance and the huge achievement gaps of Kansas at-risk students, the Legislature instead chose to appease the Supreme Court through an increase in funding. The new school finance law – SB 19 – is full of language aimed at improving educational outcomes of the at-risk, but lacks the teeth necessary to hit the target of improving performance and closing achievement gaps.

Here’s what they did, why it won’t work and what they should have done to make a real difference.

What they did.

  • Added more money to the pot. The Legislature believes the way to the Court’s heart is through the pocketbook of Kansas taxpayers. They increased the at-risk student weighting from 45.4% of the BASE (base aid for student excellence) to 48.4%. In dollar terms, that’s roughly a $30 million increase in the first year with an additional $10 million more (on top of the $30 for a total of $40 million) in the second year of the new law. Putting that in context, at-risk funding in 2014-15, the last year before block grants, was over $390 million.
  • Included provisions aimed at improving at-risk services. The Legislature directed the Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) to “identify and approve evidence-based best practices for at-risk programs and instruction of students receiving at-risk program services.” The law calls for schools to only be allowed to spend their at-risk dollars on programs identified as “best practices.”
  • Included reporting provisions. The new law contains a new requirement for an at-risk annual report from each school district to KSBE. The report must include “the number of students identified as at-risk who were served or provided assistance, the type of service provided, the research upon which the school district relied in determining that a need for service or assistance existed, the results of providing such service or assistance and any other information required by the state board.” Prior to SB 19, districts were only required to submit a general overview, non-detailed summary to the Department of Education in the form of an electronic transmission.  No reporting was ever done to either KSBE or the Kansas Legislature nor was any at-risk programmatic information available to the public. KPI had to pay for the information through a Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) request in order for that information to be included in a comprehensive study of the Kansas at-risk program. The new law also obligates Legislative Post Audit to an at-risk performance review in 2020.

Why it won’t make a difference.

  • History shows that more money will not improve outcomes nor close achievement gaps. Pursuant to the Court’s decision on the Montoy case in 2006, at-risk funding increased more than seven fold from just over $52 million in 2005 to $400 million in 2014. During that period, scores for low-income students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were stagnant, and income-based achievement gaps actually increased. State assessment scores showed only modest gains (mostly due to the quirkiness of the No Child Left Behind law and a lowering of testing standards), but even those were tempered with an uptick in income-based achievement gaps. If a 700% increase doesn’t move the needle, why would one think a few million more will do the trick?
  • A “best practices” approach will ultimately provide districts cover for a lack of improvement. At first glance, the idea of using “best practices” to provide educational support sounds like a good approach. However, since the new law includes no consequences, (save a minor one applicable only to the few districts that receive supplemental at-risk money for having a disproportionate share of at-risk students), districts have no incentive to change how they provide services to at-risk students. The programmatic landscape will be littered with a plethora of “best practices” that are nothing more than buzz-words. They’ll claim to have applied the likes of “personalized education, project-based learning, adaptive technologies, peer collaboration, data-driven curriculum, blended learning…,” to satisfy statutory requirements knowing full-well that there are no monetary repercussions for failing to improve the achievements of at-risk students. Will the schools take responsibility? Of course not. They will blame the lack of improvement on poverty, poor parenting, and ultimately the Legislature for not providing the resources necessary to overcome the first two. A lawsuit is sure to follow.
  • Although improved reporting requirements are a good step, how effective are they with no consequential benchmarks? Compelling the districts to provide some basic information is a good thing, especially given the fact that heretofore they have not had any requirements to disclose publicly how upwards of 400 million taxpayer dollars are being spent each year. Reporting requirements in SB 19 were clearly included as an attempt to satisfy the Court. Had the Legislature been sincerely concerned with the outcomes of at-risk students, reporting would have been mandated years ago. But it wasn’t. KSDE, KSBE and the Legislature chose to turn a collective eye to the reality of the unacceptable performance of the most vulnerable students. A problem that despite festering for decades is only now getting attention because the Supreme Court has finally recognized it.

What should have been done?

  • First and foremost, this is a problem that should have gotten more attention years ago. That lack of consideration has been a driving force in the overwhelming problem that now exists. Addressing the problem should not have been guided by reacting to a Supreme Court opinion. It is not an issue that is going away simply because a new school finance law passes muster with the Court.
  • The Legislature should have taken heed of the recommendations made in our at-risk study. A good start would require the districts to spend all at-risk directly and exclusively on those deemed to be educationally at-risk. Under the new law, just like the old law, schools will still be able to marble the at-risk money with other funds, even with the “best practices” requirement for at-risk students. (As an aside, shouldn’t schools be using “best practices” on all students?)
  • The Legislature should have taken the opportunity to include consequences related to the amount of at-risk funding schools get. The weighting-based system should have been replaced with an appropriations-based system, allowing the Legislature to maintain control of where the money goes. A weightings-based system, like the one now, is little more than an entitlement program for schools – in this case, the amount of money they get is based on the number of students who walk in the door. Under an appropriations-based system, money is distributed depending on how well the schools improve the achievement of at-risk students. Those schools that do better get more money, while students in chronically under performing schools would be allowed to attend a different district or private school with at-risk funding following them.

Ultimately, the only way to get school districts to take seriously the issue of improving the achievement of at-risk students is to use money as an incentive. Money seems to be the only thing that gets their attention. This is a fact lawmakers should have comprehended when putting together the new law. Unfortunately, they didn’t and the achievement of those students most economically vulnerable, those who need a quality education most to improve their quality of life as they proceed through their education will continue to stagnate. Indeed, the Legislature blew it.

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