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What is “At Risk?”

What is “At Risk?”

This may be the year that lawmakers tussle over a complicated issue that probably seems fairly simple to most of us, but which is rife with politics.

The issue is just what the Kansas Supreme Court, the Legislature, and the incredibly complex K-12 public school industry believe is an “at-risk” pupil, oh, and how to help those students get a good education in public schools that prepares them for living among us grown-ups.

Just what is “at risk?”

State and federal law as a starting point considers children whose families’ income qualify them for federally assisted or free or reduced-price lunch at school as “at risk” of not performing well in school and preparing themselves for jobs, for more education, for, well, being the prosperous and well-behaved Kansans that we all hope move in next door.

Of course, there are children who are “at risk” for many reasons. It can be a jumbled and complicated home life, it can be health issues, it can be trying to absorb knowledge in English when that’s not their first-learned language or the language that is spoken in their home or foster home. Lots of things put children at risk for getting the education that the Legislature hopes state and local spending on public education will deliver. 

The free lunch program is probably a starting point for “at-risk” from a purely procedural aspect. Everyone wants children to get a good lunch at school so they can concentrate and get all the education they can get during the school day.  But then, we probably all went to school with kids who were poorer than us and smarter than us, or richer than us and dumber than us.

Not sure lunch is the definitive issue, but statistically, those children who receive free lunches are more likely to under-perform for a lot of reasons that stretch beyond lunch, and those kids are the most identifiable for making sure they are achieving well. So, we label them “at risk” because some are, and sorting out those who aren’t is socially and educationally tricky.

Well, the Supreme Court told lawmakers to pump more than $400 million in additional funding for school districts to make sure that they have the resources to take care of at-risk children.  Now, that’s a pretty good order, but it didn’t define “at-risk,” just referred to the number of pupils who are under-performing in school, indicating that those pupils need more attention and more spending on them. The goal is a very clear, but legislators are starting to wonder whether just more money—or how much–gets every child access to the best education he/she can absorb. 

A recent Legislative Post Audit of a narrow sliver of the state’s 286 unified school districts showed that some districts spent that additional state aid on programs that didn’t directly appear aimed at those pupils, at least to the auditors. 

Districts have generally used that money to hire more teachers so they have more time to interact individually with all pupils, at-risk and others. That helps everyone. And most used the extra money for additional programs designed to improve pupil performance. 

Some legislators looked at the audit and are unsure whether that at-risk aid is getting to the right kids or just boosting budgets.

Legislators are likely to want to narrowly focus that additional money on at-risk kids. That focus is going to be hard to define, especially to legislators who are holding the checkbook.

But…look for lawmakers to try to define “at-risk” and require districts to target the additional funds specifically to those students.