At-risk overhaul needed in education finance law

David DorseyEducation

As the Legislature works through the arduous process of putting together a new K-12 education funding system, opportunities abound. One of those is the chance to overhaul one of the largest components, and biggest failures, of the old formula – the At-risk program.

Why was the old program a failure?

The old At-risk program was ineffective, inefficient and confusing.

  • It was confusing because the term “at risk” had two very different meanings: one in defining how funds were generated and the other for academic performance.
  • It was inefficient because funding was based on the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) school lunch program which is not the best proxy for getting more funding to students who are academically challenged.
  • It was ineffective because despite the large increases in funding, especially over the past decade, income-based achievement gaps continue to be significant and stagnant.

Kansas Policy Institute published this comprehensive study of the At-risk program in November 2015. That paper detailed these points and this previous blog summarized the reasons for the program’s failure.

What should a new approach look like?

Funding

The U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty estimates should replace the USDA’s school lunch program as a basis for funding. In fact, the term “poverty funding” or something similar should replace “at risk” for funding purposes. There are many advantages in doing so, making it both a more effective and efficient way to get dollars to where they are intended.

  • Advantages:
    • Estimates are made down to the school district level and grouped down to kids of school age (5-17) and updated every two years.
    • Its simplicity – no paperwork, no auditing necessary. One of the drawbacks of using the school lunch program as a proxy for funding is that it is an applications-based mechanism that has the potential for both under or over funding.
    • Predictable – funding is not open-ended: school districts will know how much they will get and the legislature will know how much the program will cost.
    • The money would get to students in poverty because it is a much better indicator of poverty than the school lunch program. According to the census bureau about 18% of Kansas students are in poverty, but about 42% of Kansas students qualify for free lunch.
    • Poverty estimates are already used in the biggest low-income education support program – the U.S. Department of Education’s Title I program – of which Kansas gets in the neighborhood of $100 million each year.
    • Funding will no longer be dependent on the whims of a program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
      • USDA has increased those eligible for free lunch through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a program that has expanded free lunches to non-low-income students. According to state statute (72-6407), this means even non-low-income students in CEP schools generate At-risk funding.
      • Conversely, the USDA could also tighten regulations to reduce the number of students eligible for free lunch, which has the potential to lower the number of students who generate funding and the total amount of money to the program.

Providing academic services

First and foremost, the new approach must focus on spending the dollars on whom they are targeted. Although the goal of the program, as stated by the Kansas State Department of Education, is to use “at-risk” funding to reduce achievement gaps for “at-risk” students, the nearly $400 million annual spending has not been targeted toward those students. A combination of Legislative action and a lack of oversight has allowed “at-risk” funding to become little more than a premium on top of base state aid per pupil (BSAPP) to be spent as school districts deem fit. The term “at-risk” should be replaced with “academically challenged” to better described those in real need of additional educational services.

Overall recommendations

  1. The term “at-risk” should be dropped altogeher. “Poverty funding” or a similar term should describe the funding mechanism and “academically challenged” is a term that should describe those who are targeted to receive more educational services. That would mitigate the confusion over believing those who generate the funding are the same students who qualify for additional educational services.
  2. The Legislature should make an annual or biennial appropriation for poverty funding and the money should be distributed to the school districts based on their proportion of students in poverty as reported in the census bureau’s most recent poverty estimates.
  3. The definition of “academically challenged” should be sufficiently narrow to assure poverty funding is directed to those students in need of additional academic services.
  4. Better reporting of student outcomes is a must. Annual reporting to the Legislature and an updated evaluation by Legislative Post Audit would provide critical information regarding the impact in reducing achievement gaps, which is currently and should continue to be the focus of the program.

The old program was one that truly lost its way. When I was finishing my teaching career at Topeka Public Schools (USD 501) the issue of how at-risk funding was being spent got elevated to the legislative level. My superintendent at the time, Dr. Julie Ford, spoke on the issue before legislators. According to this article, Dr. Ford said the money was used to reduce class sizes and pay for all-day Kindergarten. Were those allowable costs under the program? Yes. Were they targeted to “at-risk” students? No. This was especially true in the school where I taught. At that time the number of students on free lunch was around 90%, yet no at-risk funding was used to specifically target those students. That has to change.

The ability to start a government program over doesn’t come along very often. This is one of those times. Let’s hope the Legislature takes advantage of this opportunity and does the right thing. The students of Kansas, especially in this case those who are academically challenged, deserve nothing less.

Print Friendly