Eric Staats, Kids Count Intern
To help improve educational outcomes, school districts must be able to provide additional services and resources to meet the needs of all students. This is the goal of the At-Risk School Aid program; it allocates additional funds to districts in order to assist students who need the most help so that their family’s economic situation does not impact their educational opportunities. The At-Risk program is fundamental in providing all Michigan students with equitable resources to be successful. Students who are living in poverty face additional challenges in school compared with their peers who come from households with higher incomes. Similarly, students who are experiencing homelessness, are English language learners, or are facing other health or family difficulties often struggle more academically.
DISTRICTS WITH MORE STUDENTS AT RISK REQUIRE ADDITIONAL RESOURCES
Under the At-Risk program, districts receive 11.5% of a district’s foundation allowance multiplied by the number of students who receive free breakfast, lunch or milk. Those dollars can then be used to help students who are considered to be “at risk.” Students are considered to be at risk if one or more of the following criteria are met:
- Receive free or reduced-price meals;
- Do not meet proficiency standards;
- Are English language learners;
- Are absent for long periods of time;
- Have recently immigrated;
- Are victims of child abuse or neglect;
- Are homeless;
- Are migrants;
- Have a family history of school failure, incarceration and/or substance abuse;
- Are pregnant or are a teen parent; and/or
- Did not manage to complete high school in four years but are still continuing their education.
At-Risk funds can be used to reduce classroom sizes, which boosts educational achievement for students in general, but the positive results are comparatively much larger for students from households with low incomes since they’re more likely to be in larger classrooms. Funds also support programs for adult high school completion to ensure that students who don’t graduate high school within four years, of which students from households with low incomes are at a greater risk of, don’t get left behind. Additionally, the funds can be used for purchasing educational materials and equipment, hiring staff to support students who are at risk and developing new curriculum, all of which help to create a better educational experience for all students.
The At-Risk program is important because districts across the state have vastly different proportions of students at risk. For example, in Lake County, 93.4% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 45.2% of children are experiencing poverty. Without the At-Risk program, if schools in that county tried to provide additional programs to assist their at-risk students, the other programs in the school would suffer as a result. Compare Lake County to Livingston County, where the percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced lunch is 21.1% and 8.1% of children are experiencing poverty. Lake County has proportionally more students with greater needs; therefore, more funding is required to provide necessary services and programs for their students and to create equity with communities such as Livingston County.
Michigan districts with a larger proportion of students at risk struggle to reach various benchmarks of student achievement compared with those with a smaller proportion of students from families with low incomes or who are at risk, and the At-Risk funding helps mitigate that difference. In the Michigan Education Finance Study, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates (APA) used a number of standards for evaluating the quality of districts and compared the districts that had above-average test scores to those that didn’t. The study found that the districts that met or exceeded the average had a significantly lower percentage of at-risk students in their district than those that fell below. One of the best ways to help these districts and students to succeed is to provide adequate and targeted resources and support.
Fully fund the At-Risk program: The program exists to ensure that districts with a larger proportion of students at risk can provide enhanced services to ameliorate the effects of poverty and related family stress. Increasing current funding would help to mitigate the burden placed on higher-risk districts. The fact is, it costs districts more to provide the necessary supports for students who are at risk. The recent Michigan Education Finance Study done by APA concluded that districts should be spending at least 30% more money on at-risk students. The At-Risk program is one of the best mechanisms to allow districts to reach that goal.
Expand the program to all school districts: Not all school districts are eligible for the At-Risk program. If a school is out-of-formula or a district is hold-harmless, it will not receive money from the At-Risk program. These are districts that have combined state and local per-pupil foundation allowances that are higher than the basic amount, even though they may have a high number of children living in or near poverty. This is particularly damaging in places like the Baldwin Community School District where 85% of its students qualify for free lunch, but it receives no At-Risk funding.