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An elementary classroom is decorated with spelling and phonics reminders Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado school districts receive extra funding based on the number of at-risk students they educate — those students living in poverty who could struggle in school as a result. But the way the state accounts for all students who are considered at-risk has long been riddled with problems that only worsened with the pandemic. 

Two of the core issues: Colorado’s method for tallying its most vulnerable students has led to significant undercounts, particularly in the past few years during COVID-19, and the way the state defines its at-risk student population is too narrow to capture all students facing hardship that could hinder their ability to thrive in classes.

That’s why a working group convened by the Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes under legislation that passed last year set out to overhaul the way the state defines its most vulnerable students and introduce a more well-rounded approach to counting them. Their progress stopped short of adopting a new formula, which the legislation required them to do. That means school district counts of at-risk students will likely remain lower than the number that would truly reflect all students from backgrounds that challenge their academic success. 

That also translates to serious economic consequences for districts, which will receive less state funding next year based on those undercounts as they try to provide targeted resources and additional support to their neediest students.

“I think it probably just means another year of status quo for at-risk students where we are relying on a system that we know is not ideal and probably is not accounting for all the students who experience economic disadvantage” and would benefit from more resources at their school, said Leslie Colwell, vice president of youth success initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign and a member of the working group.

“There’s no way around it at this point,” Colwell added. “I think moving to this new factor will yield a better, more accurate, more holistic count, but I think the state really wants to get it right because we are going to be I think the only state doing it this way. And so (it’s) not ideal, but I do think that that extra time could benefit us in the long run.”

Colorado’s system for tracking its at-risk students revolves around a single metric: the number of kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which has long been a federal indicator of poverty. But that method is flawed and persistently undercounts its students grappling with the greatest needs.

Part of the problem is a program known as Community Eligibility Provision, which gives schools and districts the ability to provide free school meals to all their students if a certain percentage of their kids benefit from government assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. That discourages families from filling out free and reduced-price lunch forms, which districts need to show the state how many of their students qualify as at risk. 

The pandemic only added to schools’ struggle to collect free and reduced-price lunch paperwork from families as kids shifted to remote learning and families were no longer going to school to drop off the paper forms, Colwell said. Meanwhile, the federal government swooped in to give all students, regardless of their family’s income, access to free school meals for two years, further disincentivizing families from completing free and reduced-price forms.

Globes sit in a classroom at Telluride Intermediate School. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

As a result, the state’s recorded population of at-risk students dropped dramatically during the pandemic, even as families were still struggling to make ends meet.

The number of counted at-risk students started to rise this year. But after Colorado voters in November approved a school meals program that will feed all students — known as the Healthy School Meals for All program — families again won’t see much of a reason to submit forms to their school.

Additionally, using free and reduced-price lunch eligibility as the sole driver to measure students living in poverty severely restricts the scope of kids who can be considered at risk. Colwell describes it as a “one-dimensional measure” that only looks at a student’s family income.

It “ignores the other factors that are economic or social that we know are really important to student need,” she said.

An income threshold dictates who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch. Families whose income exceeds that amount by just a couple dollars must pay for their student’s meals while families right below it are guaranteed free school meals.

Free and reduced-price lunch as a measure also does not parse out different levels of poverty or account for the varying needs of students coping with different degrees of hardship, Colwell added.

Frank Reeves, another workgroup member and former superintendent of East Grand School District in Granby, recalls how challenging it was to collect forms from families, including those from Mexico who feared filling out paperwork and being deported. Others living in poverty also felt exposed.

“There’s just a point of pride for families,” Reeves said, “and it’s really tough to get some families to apply knowing that they qualify.”

Hung up on Medicaid enrollment numbers

The workgroup, composed of members from education groups as well as state agencies including the Colorado Department of Education, the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and the Colorado Department of Human Services, aimed to revise and expand who exactly fits into a school’s at-risk student population.

One proposed component would incorporate kids who are directly certified — including those who receive government aid through SNAP, TANF and the Migrant Education Program as well as homeless students and children in foster care. 

However, participation rates in those government programs are low among qualifying kids in the state, Colwell said.

An elementary classroom is decorated with a diversity posting Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We would see a pretty dramatic drop in the numbers of kids who are counted because of the low participation rates” if Colorado based its at-risk student population solely on direct certification, she said.

Another option would allow Medicaid, the joint state and federal government health insurance program for people with low income, to be added to the list of programs under direct certification. So all Colorado kids enrolled in Medicaid would ultimately be labeled at-risk students.

“Even before the public health emergency, Medicaid had a higher uptake than other public programs,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. 

Colwell is hopeful that the state could capture more at-risk students through Medicaid than the number of students calculated through the current system of free and reduced-price lunch forms.

But there are a couple caveats. Efforts to create a new at-risk student funding formula have been hampered by a lack of data, with state agencies working to tally up the number of students enrolled in Medicaid by school district. The data lag ultimately prevented the workgroup from crafting a new way to determine at-risk students, since districts will first need an understanding of how those Medicaid enrollment numbers will impact their funding.

The decision to postpone changes spared districts from potentially bigger problems in the future, said Reeves, the former East Grand superintendent who now serves as director of rural recruitment for the Public Education & Business Coalition and operations manager for the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.

Reeves feared that any premature recommendations to the legislature could end with “drastic unknown consequences if we don’t have actual numbers and runs.” 

Additionally, many children who have been covered by Medicaid during the pandemic will likely be among more than 300,000 Coloradans who could soon lose coverage with the end of the federally declared Public Health Emergency.

“We’ll probably see this dip especially among kid enrollment” possibly followed by an increase as people re-enroll once they realize they no longer have coverage, Miller said.

A decline in the number of children benefiting from Medicaid would likely impact Medicaid enrollment figures by district, but there are ways to work around any decreases. One idea is to use the enrollment numbers that predate kids losing their coverage, Colwell said.

The workgroup, which wrapped up in January, also looked into using a much more expansive set of factors that define student need in much greater detail. Those elements include how much money a student’s family earns; how often a student’s family relocates; how far a student’s parents progressed through their own schooling; how much money a student’s family spends on housing; whether a child is adopted, in foster care or living with relatives other than their biological parents; whether a student’s family shares their home with another family; and what language is primarily spoken at home.

Next year, after another workgroup sorts out other parts of Colorado’s school finance formula during the interim months, policymakers must decide how much funding for at-risk students is driven by enrollment in public benefits programs, such as Medicaid, and how much is determined by other factors of poverty, like mobility and housing costs.

Reeves is certain that once changes go into effect during the 2024-25 school year, most Colorado districts will be impacted.

“I believe in every district there are more at-risk students than what we are counting.” 

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