As Education Budgets Grow, We Should Increase Transparency
Two weeks ago, Governor Edwards unveiled his proposed state budget for fiscal year 2022-2023. Given the state’s $1.6 billion surplus, the proposal contains several funding increases, including in education. The proposal calls for an additional $148 million for K-12 teacher and staff pay raises as well as $43 million for early childhood, $17 million of which will go to the popular LA 4 prekindergarten program administered by schools across the state.
Last week, an advisory council of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met to make recommendations on the amount of funding the board should include in its annual Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), which provides state funds to local public schools. Funding is based on a formula considering student enrollment, student needs, local resources, and certain cost drivers. The formula currently stands at approximately $4 billion and the legislature must approve any request for an increase. Local school leaders called for an increase to the per-student funding amount that would have cost an additional $80 million, and teachers’ unions and advocacy organizations called for higher pay raises than the governor’s proposed budget would provide.
Others on the council were quick to point out that lawmakers might not receive such a proposal favorably, given that a large amount of money remains unspent from federal COVID recovery funds provided over the past few years. According to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE), just over $408 million, or 12.4% has been spent out of nearly $3.3 billion in Louisiana’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. These funds are in addition to approximately $4 billion in local revenue, $4 billion MFP in state funds, and $1 billion in other federal funds.
Local school systems have a great deal of flexibility in how ESSER funds are spent to address student and school needs, with 15 different allowability categories as broad as “providing principals and other school leaders with resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools” and “activities to address the unique needs of low-income students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities.” The Louisiana Department of Education, in guidance issued to local school leaders, identified “additional staff” and “differentiated compensation” as “high-impact” uses of the money.
In the end, the council chose to endorse the governor’s proposal with a request that if additional state revenues are recognized this spring, more money would be allocated to local school systems for higher teacher and other school staff pay raises.
Requests for additional state funds are happening at the same time some school districts are seeking to raise new revenue or renew existing millages at the local level. The St. Landry Parish School Board, for example, is asking voters to approve three new tax propositions to fund staff salaries, athletic facilities, and the building of new schools. The Bossier Parish School Board will soon ask voters to renew three millages for staff salaries, maintenance, and operations.
It’s not surprising that state policymakers and communities are asking questions about how existing funds are being used before approving increases or even renewing existing funding streams. After all, these are taxpayer dollars used to fund public services that the people deem essential or highly desirable in their communities. But people want to know that funds are being used wisely and that spending is yielding good outcomes. Public trust can only be achieved through financial transparency, showing citizens and policymakers how funds are being spent and then tying that information to performance.
Last year, the legislature asked the state education board to require local school systems to post certain financial information on their websites, following the example set by the Lafayette Parish School Board which provides the public with detailed revenue and expenditure information. It does not appear that much, if anything, has happened in response to that request; no implementation update was available in response to an inquiry to the LDOE.
Louisiana’s school leaders would be wise to provide greater transparency into how regular (operational) and special-purpose funds are being used to provide a quality public education system that meets the needs of children in their communities. Better yet, a statewide tool that enables the public to compare spending across Louisiana school systems could prove powerful in identifying where investments are paying off, where spending priorities should be redirected and making the case for increased funding when truly needed. Until that information is provided, citizens and the elected officials who represent them will remain hesitant to increase K-12 education funding further.