• Swamp Watch

As Federal Funds Flow to Public Schools, Where Is the Transparency?

Updated: May 19

Public schools are flush with federal dollars. Louisiana's education swamp leaders made sure sure we can't see how they're being spent.

Louisiana's public schools are set to receive $2.6 billion in federal funds as part of the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief plan. As school districts across the state debate plans to spend this federal windfall, taxpayers will be largely kept in the dark as to how these funds are spent.

School leaders have several options on how to spend these funds- with the Louisiana Department of Education outlining 15 somewhat broad categories for how the funds can be spent. This has led to some debates at local school boards. The East Baton Rouge Parish School Board recently approved a plan to give one-time bonuses to teachers and support staff, using district funds by replacing the funds used for the bonus with ESSER funds. This one-time bonus, which will be based on position rather than performance, was controversial on the board, with debate among members on whether or not it could be paid for with ESSER funds, rather than district funds.

Regardless of how districts choose to use the funds, whether on one-time bonuses, "addressing the unique needs of low-income students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities", hiring additional staff, or addressing the unprecedented learning loss in Louisiana's schools over the last few years, taxpayers will have little insight into how the funds are spend.

While Lafayette's school board has opted-in to the financial transparency website Louisiana Checkbook, other school districts across the state do not participate, keeping their spending decisions hidden from public view. Last year, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill that would have required school boards across the state to provide this basic level of transparency for taxpayers, parents, and students. It was vetoed by Governor Edwards, at the behest of the Louisiana School Boards Association who paid a lobbyist more than $100,000 to try and kill transparency at the legislature. In vetoing the legislation, Governor Edwards called it "an unfunded mandate."

Now that billions of federal dollars are flowing into schools, and East Baton Rouge Parish has already shown district funds can be moved around and replaced with federal dollars, that argument rings hollow. Costs to provide transparency were estimated at about $15,000 per school district, a small fraction of the dollars flowing in.

As more funds than ever are available to our public schools, transparency has never been more important- or more affordable.

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