An audit of 20 Kansas school districts' use of state aid for at-risk students showed most of the money was dedicated to teachers and programs beneficial to all students and it raised politically charged questions about whether the spending conflicted with laws or regulations, officials said Monday.

The Kansas State Department of Education pushed back against audit results presented to a joint committee of the House and Senate. Response of legislators briefed on the audit reflected partisan divisions with Republicans critical of what they viewed as K-12 budget and management shortcomings and Democrats pointing to evidence the aid was improving student performance.

The $413 million in annual state funding for at-risk education was designed to benefit students in jeopardy of academic failure. The funding was a key ingredient in the Kansas Supreme Court's determinations of the constitutionality of state aid to public education.

The Legislature's auditing division reported a new state law requiring at-risk money be spent on evidence-based practices was poorly supervised at the state level and inadequately implemented by school districts. Auditors discovered when closely evaluating 20 districts that most at-risk funding was dedicated to hiring teachers without assurance benefits flowed to at-risk students or relied upon evidence-based strategies.

That was, in part, because the Department of Education provided "unclear, and at times, inaccurate guidance," the audit said.

Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, and a member of the Legislature's audit committee, said the report "profoundly affected" her level of confidence more than $400 million in annual appropriations for at-risk children was spent properly.

"I'm really not surprised," she said, "but I believe this is a trust issue. I don't know now that additional funding we've given over the years is being appropriated in the way the Legislature has intended."

Others on the committee, including Rep. Jim Gartner, D-Topeka, and Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said lawmakers had belatedly made court-directed investment into lives of 490,000 students attending K-12 public schools in Kansas. They said it would take time for the 286 volunteer school boards across Kansas to reach academic objectives outlined by the state.

"We are on the right track," Sykes said. "We are not putting our money where our mouth is." 

Auditors studied appropriations for at-risk students in the 2018-19 school year. That's when a new law went on the books requiring districts to spend at-risk appropriations only on services approved by the state.

Kansas districts received $413 million for at-risk education during the audit year, and 20 districts most closely examined controlled $162 million. The list of audited districts included Topeka, Fort Leavenworth, Blue Valley, Great Bend, Wichita and Liberal.

"There is a disconnect between the students that generate the funding and those who receive the services," said auditor Heidi Zimmerman. "Most of the at-risk funding we reviewed was spent on teachers and programs that serve all students rather than focusing on at-risk students. Districts likely spend most of their at-risk funding on regular classroom teachers because KSDE guidance tells them this is allowable."

The audit said programs commonly relied upon by districts to serve at-risk students had little to no effect. Districts said they used at-risk dollars to create smaller class sizes, but auditors said there was uncertainty about whether that led to success.

Auditors said nine of 29 programs or practices deployed by the 20 districts were specifically designed for at-risk students. In addition, at-risk funding employed teachers in core subjects as well as for band, choir and physical education classes.

Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican, said the report raised red flags about whether the Department of Education was complying with law or regulations. He questioned why at-risk money was dedicated to the salary of a nurse and athletic trainer, for playground equipment, a projector, postage, food service supplies, an after-prom party and teen court.

"When the Supreme Court rendered its decision, they looked at the Legislature and said, 'You need to address at-risk funding. This is where you need to spend some money.' We've given you the money and then we look at this," Barker said.

Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of finance at the Department of Education, said a small portion of at-risk expenditures pinpointed by auditors shouldn't have been allowed.

Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican, said she struggled in the past to secure the Department of Education's list of approved expenditures for at-risk students. She said districts with a widening achievement gap ought to be able to reference evidence-based options.

Brad Neueswander, the Department of Education's deputy commissioner for learning, said the agency didn't operate a permissive system of vetting at-risk expenditures by districts.

"At-risk students are general education students that receive most of their at-risk supports in a general education classroom setting," he said. "Our formal approval process is not a website because we would never be able to have a comprehensive list of everything that is evidence-based. We guide them. We provide them resources. But they have to select it based on their unique students."