(The Center Square) – Louisiana lawmakers in both chambers on Thursday approved $27.6 million in education spending that goes beyond the main state allocation for schools, though several members said they were disappointed school districts weren’t spending more of the available dollars.
During the late 1990s, the Legislature used money from a state settlement with tobacco companies to create the Education Excellence Fund. The money is divided into two pots.
Some goes into investment accounts the systems control. While 34 systems have exhausted all of their share, 35 systems have a collective balance of $25.7 million, state education officials said.
The Legislature and Treasury make additional dollars available each year. School systems present plans to the state education department about how they plan to spend their share.
This year, schools requested spending about $27.6 million from the second pot, which includes about $15.9 million in newly allocated money and cash on hand from previous allocations.
The bulk of the requests, about $15.7 million worth, will go to remedial instruction. Many students have fallen behind given the schooling interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials noted.
About $7.9 million will go to early childhood education, while $4 million will go to other approved program types such as academic advancement and technology improvements. About $22 million in available dollars will remain unspent for now under the current proposals.
“I’d like to see it all spent as soon as possible,” said Rep. Rick Edmonds, a Baton Rouge Republican. “We always talk about money that we don’t have. Here’s money that we do have.”
Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat, made a similar argument. She said some of the lowest-rated schools in her district were sitting on unspent money that could be used to boost student performance.
Beth Scioneaux, chief financial officer for the education department, said the districts often have multi-year plans for the dollars and don’t want to spend them all in one year. State officials consult with the districts on their plans but by law can’t get into their financial affairs, she said.
Rep. Phillip Tarver, R-Lake Charles, asked about schools’ accountability for the money.
“Is there any way to know if that [spending] did us any good?” he wondered.
Scioneaux said officials have ongoing conversations with local officials about the results of their programs. So in that sense, accountability happens on a grant-by-grant basis, officials said.
Scioneaux also noted that the EEF money is a small slice of the money systems spend, along with the annual Minimum Foundation Program allocation that represents the bulk of state support for local schools and federal grants. Rep. Barbara Freiberg, a Baton Rouge Republican and former school board member, said local leaders are held accountable for EEF usage through the school and district performance scores issued yearly.
“I can tell you these funds are used well by school systems,” Freiberg said.