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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legislators to superintendents: Spend your money

When Arkansas's House and Senate Education committees heard this week how school districts were spending -- or rather NOT spending -- categorical funds, they were not happy.

Categorical funds, as opposed to the foundational funds discussed in the previous post, are state monies to help schools provide extra support for certain students:
  • Poverty (called "NSLA" funds in legislation) monies are distributed to schools based on the number of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program
  • Alternative Learning Environment funds target students with behavior, academic, health or similar issues who do not succeed in the regular school setting
  • English Language Learner funds are meant for students whose first language is not English
School districts receive those funds based on the number of students they have in each category.

The Legislative Bureau of Research reported the findings to the committees on Tuesday as they continued their discussions to set future education spending by the state.

On average, by the end of the 2011-2012 school year, school districts only spent:
  • 81% of their funds designated to help students in poverty
  • 92% of their funds to help English language learners
  • 82% of their funds to help students who require alternative education environments, largely due to behavioral issues. 

No doubt, school districts sometimes have good reasons for not spending all their funds in a certain category. Even so, as legislators pointed out, the legislation was designed to give school districts an extra pot of money to spend THAT year.

For instance, poverty funding is meant to pay for things like year-long tutoring, summer and after school programs and transportation to and from those programs -- all geared to help students' achieve higher.

No wonder legislators were appalled that the school districts with the highest amounts of poverty funds remaining at the end of the school year in 2010-2011 also had some of the highest percentages of low-performing students.

Legislators also were upset with the low spending on alternative learning environments.

Alternative schools are meant to be a place where students can learn in a more personalized environment and receive help for specific problems, be they family circumstances, substance abuse or something else. It's meant to keep kids from falling off the educational radar and produce productive citizens instead of potential criminals or deadbeats.

How those schools are set up, run and funded by school districts is very likely to be a topic legislators study in the next General Assembly.

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