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At-risk funding

Educators, psychologists and government officials long have been in agreement on the challenges lower socioeconomic students face in school. The barriers to success are well-documented, peer-reviewed and generally accepted.

Except in the Kansas Statehouse, apparently.

Currently working its way through the legislative process is a bill that would eliminate at-risk funding once the child reaches fourth grade -- a move that could save $106 million annually. The Kansas Division of Budget suggested those dollars could be redirected to other education programs or returned to the general fund.

Of all the tinkering that could be done with the state's complicated school finance formula, this would have been one of the last items we would have suspected even the most ardent small-government proponent would propose.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday there was a former State Board of Education member lobbying on behalf of Senate Bill 103. Walt Chappell doesn't see the connection between family income and a child's learning capacity.

"This is an artificial measure which greatly inflates the budgets of school districts with large numbers of low-income families," Chappell said.

Supporters of this bill couldn't be more wrong. Differences begin showing up even before a child enters kindergarten. Whether it's the availability of books in the home, the amount of time spent reading to children, level of parental distress, or just the interactivity between parent and child, the pre-academic preparation varies significantly by income level.

Schools are expected to level the playing field, if one believes No Child Left Behind is possible. And districts already have to deal with the fact the best schools attract the best teachers. Again, research supports the undesirable trend of unequal distribution of quality teachers. Students who have the greatest needs tend to get the least qualified instructors.

For the past 20 years, the Legislature has attempted to rectify this by granting more money to districts with high proportions of at-risk students. Kansas has a lot of them. Of 485,000 students enrolled this year, 49.5 percent are classified as free or reduced. It ranges from a whopping 88.6 percent of Kansas City, Kan., students to a mere 8 percent in the Blue Valley District.

Not only do at-risk kids start school with fewer academic skills, they acquire them more slowly throughout their career. Drop-out rates are significantly higher for these students. The ones who do graduate are, on average, 4.3 grade levels behind those from higher socioeconomic groups.

That is why districts throughout the state use the extra funding for specialized programs and approaches. This bill threatens the ongoing progress.

"The proposed change in the definition of at-risk students would cause educators to be reactive and only to provide limited assistance for students after they have not been successful," said George Griffith, superintendent of Trego County schools.

This shouldn't be an approach legislators take seriously. At-risk students already have enough challenges.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net