Poverty spending on education needs focus

Believe it or not, lawmakers will be talking about issues other than the Private Option during the 2014 fiscal session which begins today. One of those issues is how to best spend funds aimed at helping poorer students perform better in school. NSLA funding (named after the National School Lunch Act and sometimes referred to as poverty funding) is supposed to help low-income students close the “achievement gap” that exists between them and their more affluent counterparts.

Act 1467 of 2013 said that NSLA funding should be limited to the most strongly-researched strategies in reducing the achievement gap. One of the recommendations of the House Committee on Education and the Senate Committee on Education in the 2012 adequacy report was to “Prioritize and focus school districts’ allowable uses of educational funding for economically disadvantaged students,” in response to a report prepared by the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Right now the list of ways schools can spend NSLA funds is too long and not nearly concentrated or focused enough on prioritizing that spending toward the achievement needs of lower-income students. AACF Board President Jim Argue wrote an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s Perspectives Session of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Argue, a former state senator and chair of the Senate Education Committee, had this to say about how NSLA funds should be directed:

Just as we shouldn’t spend money set aside for English language learners on athletics or school buses for all students, neither should we use poverty money for district-wide needs. So how should it be spent? The Legislature can look to its own recent studies for the answer to that question.

Last year, Act 1467 required the Legislature to study (yet again) the best uses of this funding and for the Education committees to recommend a list of evidence-based programs that would make the best use of this funding. The report put together by the Bureau of Legislative Research lists quality after-school and summer programs, tutoring, and pre-kindergarten as programs that research shows are proven to reduce the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers. The report also lists resources such as high-quality teachers that are already provided for in foundation funding for every student.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. The Bureau detailed problems with the effectiveness of some districts’ spending of this money in 2012, and the University of Arkansas’ Office of Education Policy as well as Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families have come to similar conclusions. The bottom line of all these organizations-which don’t always agree on such things-is that spending this money in a piecemeal fashion won’t lead to the improvements in student achievement that we seek.

The BLR report identified tutoring, after-school and summer programs, and pre-K programs as having the strongest supporting research. We feel these areas deserve a special focus when it comes to spending.

Act 1467 required a study to form the basis of recommendations of programs that are most effective in closing the achievement gap. To fail to restrict the uses of these funds means the state may fail to meet its own adequacy research.