August 13, 2022

Audit: No accountability for at-risk spending by districts

A post-legislative audit of Kansas state school district at-risk spending found that most at-risk spending in the state goes to paying for teacher salaries and general classroom instruction. The result is that the spending does not end up helping these students.

Students at risk are identified by schools through children who are entitled to free school meals. However, according to the audit, this funding is not required to be tied to the actual services provided to these students.

As a result, as the audit notes, “most of the spending was used for teachers and programs for all students and did not appear to be directed specifically to at-risk students as required by state law.”

91% of at-risk spending is on teachers and paraprofessionals. According to the LPA audit, “19 of 20 audited districts used at-risk funds to pay teachers, ranging from math and English to electives like choir and orchestra.”

Kansas State Rep. Kristey Williams (R-Augusta) serves on the Legislative Post-Audit Committee. According to Williams, the audit was the result of a desire to better understand evidence-based programs and practices.

“We never really got a sense of what it was and of course the audit expressed the same kind of frustration that there are a lot of practices out there that aren’t really evidence-based,” Williams says. .

State law requires that this targeted funding “aim to provide at-risk students with additional educational opportunities and services to achieve state educational outcomes.”

But school districts aren’t spending the money on targeted student benefits that are “beyond” regular education efforts. Instead, the money will be used to pay classroom salaries in proportion to the number of students at risk. As stated in the LPA, “if a school has 30% of students identified as at-risk, then 30% of classroom teacher salaries may be paid with at-risk funds.”

School districts pushed back, responding that in-class assessments are business as usual and the best way to help these students. But of the classroom programs used by districts, only a third are specifically designed for at-risk students. The rest of the programs indicated for use with these students are also used in general education. Only 3 of the state’s 29 at-risk programs have proven effective.

Overall, many districts reported using the additional funding to pay for smaller class sizes. However, as the study notes, “these practices have only limited success according to several studies.”

The audit found that most risky practices in the state did not target students and were not evidence-based. Most of the approved practices and programs are not at all related to the intended students and could be classified as good practices or resources for teachers in general. Notably, KSDE could not produce research to show that the endorsed items were evidence-based.

Districts responded to the audit noting that many districts spend more on at-risk programs than they receive, but Williams says that since there is no accountability for how schools spend the money, the overspending claim is irrelevant.

“I feel like it’s irrelevant and may be baseless considering what they spent their money on. If you can spend it on anything, almost, then I guess that I can say I spent 20% more if I can include teacher salaries in that,” Williams says.

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