If you think controversy over school funding ended has ended, think again. A dispute is brewing about how the new, court-awarded funds are being spent by school districts to help at-risk students and how the Kansas State Department of Education is managing the districts.
The disagreement became widely known this past December, when a team tasked by the Kansas Division of Post-Audit released a report that compared funds some school districts receive for at-risk students to what districts spend to provide services to those students.
The research was based on a sample of 20 districts representing different enrollment sizes. High need was defined by the federal standard of 75% or more of students within a school receiving a free or reduced-price lunch.
The sample showed, in high need schools, at-risk spending was used for teachers and programs for all students while not “specifically” addressing at-risk, in danger of failing, students as required by state law. Of the funds expended, about 82% went to hiring teachers and about 9% to paraprofessionals. The audit also identified $191,000 of spending not directly related to at-risk students, like Chromebooks and security system purchases.
Part of the public response of KSDE was that adding teachers, staff and programs supported all students, including at-risk students. For example, each of the districts studied cited in-class assistance by teachers and paraprofessionals directed toward at-risk students. Summer school, support for English learners and other inclusive programs that districts cited can be found online at the DPA website.
However, the practices schools listed are not solely for at-risk students, a condition that some conservatives demand should be changed and that KSDE more formally guide the districts’ actions and monitor programs and practices for at-risk students.
Based on the LPA study, follow-up on practices both by KSDE and school districts is worth consideration as they implement the new law.
But the most difficult obstacle in following a literal interpretation of the law is how to deliver programs specifically for at-risk students. Since the 1950s, U.S. schools have not assigned entire groups of students to separate educational experiences.
Many high-need students become at risk due to the impact of inadequate health services or clothing, or food, or whether they live in foster homes, or are homeless, or have suffered trauma. Would separating all at-risk students into distinct classes create a dynamic of segregation based, more or less, on poverty?
Considering the current model for Kansas students needing special education might help resolve the issue. Special education students are placed according to the demands of their need into mainstream/regular classrooms, class-within-a-class rooms where a small group receives different/extra attention, or in a self-contained classroom where a licensed special education teacher handles instruction for all students in the room.
I believe that conservatives don’t actually want separated classes for every at-risk student. They just want to see more at-risk student progress, which is what all Kansans want.
Many things make Kansas a great place to live and one of the greatest is our system of free, universal, public education. School is our one institution where the vast majority of us spend 12 years or more — all together — learning by interacting with and developing respect for others regardless of religion, race, culture or whether the government pays for lunch.
Sharon Iorio is professor and dean emeritas of the Wichita State University College of Education. Reach her at Sharon.firstname.lastname@example.org.