••• Education •••

There’s still time to change the state’s at-risk program

More than three years ago, in March 2021, KPI published a new model for the state’s at-risk program. Why does the state need a new model? The reason is simple: in the three decades since the program was initiated, there was essentially no improvement in the performance of the very students the program was designed to help. Period. The funding for the at-risk program had ballooned from a modest $13 million to well over $400 million annually (now over $500 million) with nothing to show for it. That’s why it is time for a change.

The proposed approach to organizing, operating and funding is radically different from the existing program – a program that has been an abject failure in terms of improving the achievement of at-risk students – but not actually a radical approach. This new method is essentially a mirror image of how Kansas schools provide services for ELL students.

This new model was created in response to both a KPI report on the state of the at-risk program and an audit of the at-risk program by Legislative Post Audit (LPA). The KPI report exposed the fact that despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually, those targeted for improvement in academic performance were not improving. LPA found that much of the money provided for the at-risk program was not even targeted to at-risk students, it was marbled with general funding and spent on all students.

Since publishing that proposed change there has been another at-risk audit by LPA. Guess what? LPA found that “little appears to have changed.” Same ol’, same ol’. Except for one little detail: at-risk funding has increased significantly during this time period. At-risk funding increased from a little more than $406 million in FY 2022 to $554 million in FY 2024. Why this astronomical increase of over 36% in two years? Has poverty increased that much in such a short time? No, not even in a Bidenomics world or chalking things up to “post-COVID.” Did the Kansas Supreme Court once again stick their collective noses where they don’t belong and demand the Legislature extort millions of additional tax dollars for this failed program? Not this time.

What changed is essentially due to the stroke of a pen. In the 2022-23 school year, Kansas became another state in the USDA’s  Direct Certification with Medicaid Demonstration Project. The goal of this project is to increase the number of students on free/reduced lunch  by expanding “access for low-income children while reducing administrative burden for schools and parents/guardians.” In other words, it eliminated the need for many families to apply for free/reduced lunches. They became automatically enrolled.

Thusly, the expanded number of students on free lunch increased the amount of at-risk funding. State statute dictates that anyone who qualifies for free lunch generates at-risk dollars – all paid by the state; no federal dollars for the at-risk program. Despite the fact that the feds don’t pay a single dollar toward the program, they have an incredible impact on at-risk funding in Kansas. The feds simply changed the rules for free-lunch qualification.

It’s important to note that the philosophy behind having an at-risk program in the first place is that students in poverty are believed to be harder to educate than those not in poverty. But free-lunch qualification and poverty are NOT highly related. In FY 2022 over 158 thousand Kansas students qualified for free lunch. In that same year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 63,771 school-aged children were in poverty. That translates into approximately 60% of those on free lunch in Kansas were NOT in poverty.

One of the pillars of the proposed KPI model is the elimination of using the school lunch program as the basis for funding the at-risk program. Instead, the KPI model proposes a method of using the identified number of academically at-risk students as the basis for determining at-risk funding levels. Not exactly a radical way of funding the program, is it?

In the recently completed legislative session, a bill was introduced that would change (slightly) some of the current program. Although virtually any changes to the at-risk program – those that don’t include an increase in funding – are a welcome site, the bill falls short, very short, in addressing and proposing a KPI student-focused type improvement to the at-risk approach.

The bill focuses on “evidence based” and “best practices” – both education buzzwords – services provided to at-risk students. In other words, the focus is on process, inputs to the system. The bill requires schools to designate cohort groups for at-risk accountability. Why cohort groups? That specifically leaves out non-cohort students from accountability.

Why choose to leave some students out? Yes, the proposed legislation includes financial consequences for not meeting targets, but overall, the effort is one of overlaying one failing government program with another government program directed at ‘improving’ the system at the margins.

The state spends over a half-billion dollars each year on a program that has failed since its inception over three decades ago. It’s far past time to restrict change to fiddling in the fringes to make it more ‘politically’ acceptable.

Who cares about “evidence based” and “best practice” services?  Those buzzwords are nothing more than diversionary methods to avoid the real issue of poor performance.  I spent 20 years in elementary classrooms – 17 in Kansas – both as a classroom teacher and a specialty math teacher. Believe me, the educators know how to improve student achievement. But they also know how to flummox the system to avoid changing how to do business. The education establishment is much more concerned about business as usual than improving student achievement.

Here’s a perfect example of how the system tries to hide at-risk student achievement. In reporting state assessment results, KSDE reports the performance of 19 subgroups for every grade in each subject. Yes, 19 subgroups. Guess which one is NOT reported.

Indeed, there is no subgroup results for those students identified by the schools as at-risk. That simple exclusion speaks volumes about how interested the state is in improving the achievement of students who are at risk academically. Frankly, they are not. While they are busy putting together a list of service programs that “they can be proud of” as one KSDE bureaucrat presented to the State Board of Education, at-risk students continue to flounder.

Side-by-side comparison of current at-risk program and KPI model.

The following table compares the current (failing) approach with KPI’s proposed mode. Note that new method is basically a ‘test-in, get services, test-out’ method, similar to the way the state’s ELL program is run. For a detailed explanation of the model, read here.


If the goal is to improve truly at-risk student performance, it’s hard to argue any piece of the KPI approach. Of course, if the goals are (1) keep money flowing to school districts, (2) don’t ask questions, and (3) accept poor student achievement, then the old method is just fine.

It’s time the Legislature take heed of this and assure at-risk students exhibit achievement improvements. Perhaps if the state implemented an ESA program that would allow students and families more school choice, that might improve things. All it takes is political courage.