The philosophy and research supporting at-risk funding – second in a series

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As I discussed in the first blog in this series, the state of Kansas provides almost $400 million additionally each year for at-risk funding to K-12 education. But what is the philosophy behind spending more taxpayer dollars to educate economically disadvantaged students? What does the research say? And how have states responded in their particular “at-risk” funding formulas? In this blog I will briefly answer address these questions.

It may sound like a dumb question, but why is it that it should cost more to adequately educate students who are disadvantaged? Sure, it seems intuitive, but where did that idea start and where is the research to back it up?

The genesis of the premise that it costs more to adequately educate the economically disadvantaged comes from a 1969 article in the National Tax Journal by three economists who attempted to explain why the cost of all local public services was outpacing inflation in post-World War II America. (Sidebar: their article is proof that the concern over rapidly expanding government spending is not a recent phenomenon.) The researchers suggested that differing costs for public service across jurisdictions could partially be explained by environmental factors. Specifically regarding education, they say that outcomes might be a function of “the ‘basic intelligence’ of pupils, home backgrounds and neighborhood conditions.” That seems to be the phrase subsequent researchers have locked onto to justify the need for what has become commonly known as at-risk funding.

Many studies since then, including this 1997 study and this one from 2004, focused on spending disparities and “outcome” disparities among school districts within states. Again, without getting too “wonky,” studies showed school districts that were property poor, and as a parallel had lower per pupil spending (since school financing is primarily a function of property values), had lower outcomes than their counterparts with higher property values. And of course, those property poor districts had a disproportionate share of low income families/students. Therefore, the studies concluded that poor school districts needed more money to bring their students up to an acceptable minimum outcome standard. Researchers typically defined outcome as an index of a combination of standardized test scores and other indicators such as graduation rates.

But these studies have remained academic exercises.  Even though it is now a given that poor students require more money to reach a given outcome, most states now have some form of additional funding based on economic status of students. However, the amounts states have allocated are all less than the research concludes are necessary.

Yes, politics and budget constraints trump academia.

The Kansas At-Risk Timeline

In 1992 a new law entitled the School District Finance and Quality Performance Act included a 5% weighting for students who qualified for free school lunch. That percentage was increased to 6.5% in 1997 and increased seven more times in the next decade to its current level of 45.6%. In 2006, two more categories of at risk were added. One was for schools with high percentages of at risk populations and/or an enrollment density of at least 212.1 students per square mile. The other additional category targeted money for students non-proficient in math and reading, but not eligible for a free lunch. (The non-proficient category was eliminated in 2014.) In dollar terms, the 5% in 1992 generated just over $13 million. That amount is now nearly $400 million.

The situation in Kansas is not dissimilar to those in other states. At least 35 states have a mechanism for additional funding generated by economically disadvantaged students. Most of them use some variation of the number of students who qualify for free OR free or reduced lunches through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). NSLP has been the choice because it is an expedient and convenient proxy for determining economically disadvantaged students since qualification for free/reduced lunches is predominantly income based. And like Kansas many have weight values that are not static. A 2004 study out of the University of Wisconsin reports that nationwide the weights range from 15% in Vermont to 62.5% in Illinois, while a presentation last year to the Nevada state legislature showed a low of 9.15% in New Mexico to 180.0% in Georgia. The thing to keep in mind here is that it is nearly impossible to compare Kansas to other states because not all states use the same definition of disadvantaged and some use multiple factors to determine additional spending.

So how did Kansas go from a relatively modest 5% at-risk weighting in 1992 to a hefty 45.6% (with two additional categories) by 2006? That is the topic of the next blog.

Next: The political history of at-risk funding in Kansas

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