Most school finance experts agree that it costs more to educate students from poor families or those who are at risk of academic failure. “Districts and schools are now, for the first time, being held specifically accountable for helping at-risk students learn. States have an obligation to provide them with sufficient funding to accomplish the task,” says Kevin Carey, a senior policy analyst with the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.
State policymakers seem to agree.
According to a survey by the Education Week Research Center, 43 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of mechanism in place to provide extra money for students who are deemed at risk. The Education Week survey of the education departments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, conducted in the fall of 2004, sought to learn more about such state efforts.
While the term “at risk” could be applied to many different student groups, including those in special education and English-language learners, the survey focuses just on students living in poverty or those failing academically.
That definition of at-risk students captures a significant number of youngsters.
U.S. Census Bureau data show that 16 percent of children live below the poverty level. And, according to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 36 percent of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
In addition, almost a third of high school students are not graduating. According to Jay P. Greene, a senior research fellow for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York City-based think tank, the national graduation rate is just 71 percent.
Weights and Categorical Programs
In general, states have used two methods to provide extra funding for students considered to be at risk. Under one method, states adjust the per-pupil aid level through a weight or an adjustment in the school finance formula. The other method uses what are known as categorical programs to channel grants to school districts that typically must be spent on specific services.
States are pretty evenly divided between those two measures, with nine states and the District using a weight or an adjustment, 17 using categorical programs, and 17 relying on both methods, according to the Education Week survey.
Only seven states do not have an adjustment in their finance formulas or a categorical program specifically for students at risk, the survey found.
For states that have weights or adjust funding in their state aid formulas, the amount of funding each district receives is usually calculated with a weighted-pupil-enrollment formula, in which students in poverty or those otherwise deemed at risk are counted as more than one student.
For example, each Kansas student eligible for free lunch is counted as 1.1 student, adding an additional 10 percent in funds.
The weights for students deemed at risk are typically applied to the number of students in poverty, but there is no consensus on how to count those students. Most states rely on the number of students eligible for federal free or reduced-price lunches. Others use the number of students eligible for free lunches, a slightly tougher standard.
A few states use the number of students in remedial programs or those falling short of academic standards to set weighted student enrollments. Georgia, for example, counts each student in remedial education programs as 1.2917 student.
State categorical programs focus on a wide range of issues and populations, from substance abuse and prison education to students who are pregnant or have been expelled. They also include programs such as early-childhood education, remedial education, alternative schooling, dropout prevention, and summer school.
Ohio is an example of a state with one program that serves multiple purposes.
The state’s Disadvantaged Pupil Impact Aid, or DPIA, program provides additional funds to districts based on each district’s concentration of families in public-assistance programs. The state has specific rules for how districts spend the money; it requires programs such as full-day kindergarten, remediation, and class-size reduction. Ohio allocated more than $344 million to the program during fiscal 2004.
Colorado has a grant program designed to help expelled students. Districts are provided with extra resources to help those students return to school or earn the General Educational Development credential. The program also provides services, such as counseling or substance-abuse treatment, for students deemed to be at risk of expulsion, but it leaves the decisions about which students need those services to the districts.
Virginia has adopted a new categorical program for students considered at risk. Called the At-Risk Student Academic Achievement Program, it aims to improve such students’ performance on state assessments, decrease their dropout rates, and increase the number earning advanced diplomas.
The legislature did not, however, appropriate any fiscal 2005 money for the program, which was estimated to cost $200 million annually.
Although most states are making an effort to provide additional funds for helping students who are judged to be at risk, there is little agreement about how much extra money is needed. Across the 26 states and the District with weights or adjustments in their finance formulas for such students, the numeric values of those weights vary greatly. In turn, there is a lot of variation in how much money the weights bring to school districts.
Carey of the Education Trust says that research shows it may cost twice as much to bring at-risk students up to academic standards as it does for other students, but no state has a weight that high. Most states provide no more than a 25 percent increase in state aid per student in poverty. Only New Hampshire, with a 60 percent increase, and Maryland, with its 97 percent boost in funding per student in poverty, come close to doubling the spending for nonweighted students.
According to Bruce D. Baker, an associate professor of education at the University of Kansas, state legislators usually rely on two factors to determine the numeric value of the weights: the revenue available and which districts win or lose as the weights are applied. “Rarely is there any empirical evidence to influence weighting. … [T]here are many layers of arbitrary and political decisions applied in each weight,” he says.