What to make of a legislative audit suggesting that money directed toward at-risk students wasn’t actually being spent on programs to directly benefit them?

The news came this week, according to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter. “The Legislature’s auditing division reported a new state law requiring at-risk money be spent on evidence-based practices was poorly supervised at the state level and inadequately implemented by school districts. Auditors discovered while closely evaluating 20 districts that most at-risk expenditures were dedicated to hiring teachers without assurance benefits flowed to struggling students or relied upon evidence-based strategies.”

Yes, on first hearing it sounds terrible. But on closer examination, it might be precisely what’s needed. We frankly need to know more and follow the complicated issue closely over upcoming sessions.

At issue is how best to serve at-risk students. There are programs that specifically target them, but all of the Legislature's targeted spending isn’t going to those programs, and the state Department of Education has said that’s acceptable.

As pointed out by Brad Neueswander, the department’s deputy commissioner for learning, “At-risk students are general education students that receive most of their at-risk supports in a general education classroom setting.”

After years of disinvestment in public schools by the Legislature, Kansas schools are in rebuilding mode. They are making sorely needed hires and creating the infrastructure needed to educate the next generation of state leaders. It makes sense to spend the money where it’s needed, and that will vary by district.

But at the same time, legislators had a clear vision of their intent with this funding. It was noted by the Kansas Supreme Court in deciding that the recent school funding plan was constitutional. And while some in Topeka may never see expanded funding for schools as a positive, appearing to blithely disregard their guidance could also have consequences.

As Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, noted: I believe this is a trust issue. I don’t know now that additional funding we’ve given over the years is being appropriated in the way the Legislature has intended.”

The audit frankly raises more questions than answers. We hope that the state Department of Education and legislators speak to one another more frequently and freely about how this targeted aid for at-risk students is distributed, and that they reach an understanding about how the money is used.

Kansas youths need the best schools possible. They shouldn’t be used as political pawns.