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In Kansas, a Ripe Debate Over Whether K-12 Money Is Getting to the Kids Who Need it Most

One of the most compelling statistics to come out of the years-long legal debate in Kansas over how to overhaul its school funding formula was that more than a quarter of Kansas' students, most of them poor, black, Latino or English Language Learners, fail to meet the state's academic standards. 

So when a legislative audit report last month showed that the vast majority of the $400 million in new money Kansas lawmakers each year set aside for those students wasn't actually reaching those students, legislators were livid. 

State lawmakers now are debating whether they should make the state's board of education and department of education crack down on districts to assure that money is spent as intended, or provide vouchers to poor parents to allow them to transfer to better-performing schools.   

The debate in Kansas reflects a larger debate across the country over how to track K-12 spending. Because state departments of education lack sophisticated tools, many legislatures don't have detailed, up-to-date spending data on school districts like they do of other government agencies. A new requirement under the Every Student Succeeds Act that goes into effect this school year requires districts to break out for the general public how money is spent between schools. Because schools differ so starkly by class and race, those data can reveal whether state and federal dollars are being spent as intended.  

Kansas' Legislative Division of Post Audit found that the state's at-risk dollars are spent on ineffective programs and what they deemed questionable items such as a projector, postage, food service supplies, an after-prom party, and teen court, according to local media reports. In addition, only a handful of the district's at-risk programs were deemed academically effective by the state's department of education. 

Getting money to schools in impoverished communities is politically difficult. Because so much K-12 aid is spent on teacher salaries, district administrators have to either move experienced teachers to low-performing schools, lower class sizes, or overhaul their district's school zones so that wealthy white students are placed in classrooms with poor, black, Latino or ELL students so they have access to equal resources. Legislatures can also reapportion tax dollars to impoverished districts, though that tactic gets heavy backlash from wealthy, politically powerful districts.  

The federal government just launched another study to track how more than $6 billion of Title I dollars for disadvantaged students are spent, although previous studies have shown that much of the money isn't spent as intended and Congress rarely does anything about it. 

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