Politics & Government

Wichita school district fights bill to change funding for at-risk students

Wichita and several other major Kansas school districts fought a proposal Tuesday that would take poverty measures out of the school finance formula, focusing instead on test scores.

Under Senate Bill 103, districts would no longer be able to count students beyond third grade as “at risk” just because they qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Instead, districts could count only students who are on academic warning or don’t meet math and reading standards as “at-risk,” a change that could dramatically change state funding in some districts.

Walt Chappell, a former state school board member from Wichita, said basing a student’s designation as “at-risk” on their parents’ income is an “artificial measure which greatly inflates the budgets of school districts with large numbers of low-income families.”

“Just because a child’s parents may be unemployed or have limited income; this fact has little to do with that student’s ability to learn,” he wrote in testimony to senators. “Children all over America and foreign countries live in poverty but can and do excel academically.”

But several school districts opposed the shift.

Poverty has a big impact on a student’s success, said Diane Gjerstad, a lobbyist for Wichita public schools. That’s because poor students are less likely to have access to computers, books, health care and the support at home that helps kids excel.

For example, Wichita’s West High has 1,300 students – 86 percent get free or reduced lunch, she said.

The school uses its at-risk funding to help students get basic needs, such as clothing, food, shelter, medical care and mental health services. It also uses that money to pay for 13 college students and seven teachers to tutor students.

The proposal would “undo an effective system of targeting dollars to meet the needs of economically disadvantaged students,” she wrote in testimony given to lawmakers.

Sen. Steve Abrams, a Republican from Arkansas City, said he’s not sure when the Senate Education Committee will vote on the bill.

“There are some very wealthy students that just have a difficult time at school,” he said. “There are likewise some very poor students that have an easy time or are very successful at school. So there is not a direct correlation. Is there some correlation? I suspect there is. But I’m not sure that’s the best measurement to be able to identify those students who are truly at risk.”