Invest in Louisiana conference

Education advocates address the Invest in Louisiana policy conference in Baton Rouge on Aug. 16, 2019. From left: Mike Mitchell (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities), Matt Williams (Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative), Neva Butkus (Louisiana Budget Project) and Tramelle Howard (East Baton Rouge School Board and The Education Trust)

Louisiana should spend more on education and spend those dollars more wisely to address the state’s systemic poverty, advocates said Friday.

The Louisiana Budget Project, a left-leaning policy group that focuses on low- and moderate-income residents, hosted the Invest in Louisiana conference in Baton Rouge.

Neva Butkus, a policy analyst with the group, said Louisiana’s per-pupil state spending on education is close to the national median, but said that level of spending isn’t enough for a state that has one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the country.

“We’re in the middle, but we’re closer to the bottom than the top,” Butkus said.

She said nearly 70 percent of Louisiana public school students come from poor households. Even in wealthier districts, the rate is over 40 percent. Butkus said almost a third of traditional public school districts in the state were under a desegregation order in 2018, adding that segregated districts correlate with worse outcomes for poor students.

At the very least, she said, the state’s Minimum Foundation Program funding for school districts should rise with the inflation rate. Stagnant state funding puts poorer districts at a financial disadvantage to their better-off peers.

Lawmakers this year raised the MFP by 1.375 percent, the second increase in a decade. Some state House Republicans initially resisted the increase, calling for more transparency about how districts are spending the dollars they’re already getting, before relenting.

Butkus suggested eliminating the state’s federal income tax deduction, which she said would free up some $900 million to invest in education. Policy wonks across the political spectrum have called for abolishing that tax break, though many conservative advocates would prefer to flatten state income tax rates to make the change roughly revenue-neutral.

Tramelle Howard, an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member, said districts with large populations of higher-need students, in particular, need more financial support. He also said greater diversity is needed in the teaching profession because minority students are more likely to succeed when they have had at least one minority teacher by the third grade.

Howard also stressed the importance of policymakers making sure money is spent in ways that improve student outcomes. He said the East Baton Rouge system, with a budget of more than $400 million, at times, resembles “just a big employment agency.”

“A lot of the money that we’re spending is not necessarily going to the needs of students but to the needs of adults,” he said.

Mike Mitchell, senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that since the Great Recession, only Arizona has reduced per-pupil spending on higher education more than Louisiana. At the same time, tuition in Louisiana has increased more than any other state, he said.

He cautioned the official tuition cost does not take into account scholarships or need-based aid. However, students who don’t know people who have been to college who can help them navigate how to pay for it might simply look at the “sticker price” and decide higher education isn’t an option.

When it comes to financial aid, Mitchell said states should focus spending on students with the greatest need who might not get to college otherwise. For students who receive merit-based aid, it’s usually only a question of where they will attend college, not if they will.

Historically, Louisiana spends far more on merit-based aid through its TOPS scholarship program than on need-based aid.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.