Tuesday, March 8, 2016

When Times Get Tough, States Must Double Down on Investments That Pay Off

Last week, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved $106 million in cuts to address a budget shortfall caused in part by falling oil and gas prices. As reported by the Associated Press, almost half of those cuts would fall on the state’s Department of Education, gutting the agency charged with overseeing public schools statewide by eliminating more than 85 percent of its funding.

Cutting the state education agency’s budget makes for fun politics, especially in Louisiana where the governor and state chief have not always seen eye-to-eye. And well-intentioned legislators often want to insulate local school districts from budget cuts and protect local teaching jobs. But no state can expect to improve public education without making some investments in SEA capacity.

pIggybank and man in a maze

Kids and families rely on state oversight to ensure local provision of public schools is adequate. In Louisiana, the Department of Education’s Recovery School District has been charged with intervening in schools and districts that have persistently failed students. These efforts have resulted in substantial improvements in student outcomes and reduced the number of struggling schools in the city of New Orleans. Families also rely on data collected and reported by the Department of Education to make informed choices, without which they would struggle to navigate the expansive school choice programs the state has historically supported.

Districts and schools also benefit from the investment in the Department. Louisiana is among just a handful of states that has actively sought improved regulatory flexibility for schools and districts and leveraged their position to ensure local reform efforts are not quashed by red tape.

The SEA can be a strong partner with state legislators as they seek to address the budget crisis. State expenditures on K–12 education often exceed Medicaid, higher education, and transportation—making it one of the most expensive investments states take on. States facing revenue shortfalls need to understand how existing resources are being used and whether they can be used more productively. But they can’t do these evaluations without the SEA, which collects data and evaluates schools and programs.

As painful as they are, budget crises provide an important opportunity for states to reassess their investments in K–12 education. Louisiana must use their revenue shortfalls to double down on their efforts to make K-12 education more productive. And that starts with ensuring state education agencies are equipped to lead that work.

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