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Panel may seek changes to how Kansas allocates funds for at-risk students

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By Bryan Lowry
Eagle Topeka bureau
09/18/2014 8:48 PM
A commission on school spending on Thursday scrutinized how the state allocates funding for at-risk students.
If it decides to recommend changes to the Kansas Legislature, that could have a big impact on the Wichita school district, where at-risk students make up more than three-quarters of the student population.
Under the current system, students are considered at-risk if they participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, which provides lunches to students from low-income families. The state uses the number of students in this program to determine how much additional money a school district should receive under the at-risk weighting in the school finance formula.
For the 2013-2014 school year, Wichita had 39,567 students – about 78 percent of the total student population – receiving either free or reduced-price lunches.
The K-12 Student Performance and Efficiency Commission reviewed a 2006 state audit that found that 17 percent of the students enrolled in the program shouldn’t qualify, according to a random sample of 500 students. Using this percentage the Legislative Division of Post-Audit projected that the state overpaid $19 million in its at-risk funding across the state.
Auditor Scott Frank testified to the commission that enrollment for the free and reduced-price lunch program was not set up to be a scientific measurement of poverty.
“This is a federal program that’s designed to get meals to kids who need them,” Frank said. “And it pretty much tries to err on the side that it would rather give a meal to a kid who’s ineligible for it than deny a meal to a kid who is eligible.
“It was never designed as a measure of poverty.”
Former House Speaker Mike O’Neal, who sits on the commission, suggested that perhaps the state should move to a system that uses standardized test scores to determine the number of at-risk students.
He said the state would save significantly if it did so, and the money saved could be plugged back into the base funding for schools.
“This is not a function of trying to take money out of the system, but trying to make sure that money in the system is fairly and adequately distributed,” said O’Neal, president of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce.
This would not change the free and reduced-price lunch program in schools.
Sam Williams, the commission’s chair, did not say whether he would lean toward O’Neal’s idea but made it clear that he would like to see more transparency with at-risk funding, which he said would increase efficiency.
Mark Desetti, the legislative director for the Kansas National Education Association, said that using proficiency to determine whether a student is at-risk could create other problems.
“If you do it by tests and you fund well and the district is successful – implements programs that are successful so that the scores go up – then the at-risk funds go back down,” said Desetti who observed the commission meeting.
Diane Gjerstad, the lobbyists for the Wichita school district, agreed.
“The irony in that is we know it takes continued support to keep our kids successful,” Gjerstad said.
She pointed to numerous academic studies that show students from low-income families enter kindergarten having heard about 30 million fewer words than students with professional parents.
Gjerstad, who was in Topeka for the meeting, said that tying at-risk funds to proficiency would hurt districts like Wichita with high numbers of students living in poverty.
“Basically what happens is the districts that have high populations of poverty would have fewer funds and that means we’d have fewer resources for the supports we know we need in place to have our kids be successful,” Gjerstad said.
The district already lost $750,000 in at-risk funding this past year when the Legislature capped the age a student qualified for the money at 19 as part of a controversial school finance bill. The bill also created the K-12 commission.
Gjerstad said that the commission members were asking good questions, but said that it is important to keep at-risk funding tied to income rather than test scores.
“One great thing about using free and reduced (lunches) is we already have a system in place to capture that data,” Gjerstad said.

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

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