Public school districts in Louisiana will receive an additional $54 in state funding for every enrolled student this year, thanks to an increase in per-pupil spending approved by the Legislature. The increase in the minimum base amount of state and local spending per student brought that amount to $4,015.
It marked just the second increase to Louisiana’s base per-pupil spending in more than a decade, the previous one coming in the 2014-15 school year. But prior to 2008, the Legislature routinely approved annual 2.75% increases to the Minimum Foundation Program formula, which distributes state dollars for public schools. When Louisiana’s budget cratered as a result of tax cuts and the Great Recession, Louisiana abandoned these annual inflation adjustments. If base per-pupil spending had actually kept up with inflation since 2008, Louisiana would spend $657 more per pupil than it currently spends for the 2019-2020 school year. If the formula continued to increase by 2.75% each year through the 2020 school year, base per-pupil spending today would be $1,322 higher.
To meet the needs of all students, local school districts and the state share the financial obligation for funding public education. The state is required to contribute an average of 65% of total per-pupil spending costs, but the amount that individual districts receive varies depending on each district’s wealth and ability to fund their public schools. The minimum the state can contribute is 25%, but districts with extreme poverty and no industry can expect their per-pupil costs to be covered by the state at or near 90%.
When state support is stagnant, it places a bigger burden on local school districts and communities to raise the money necessary to meet the needs of their students. Every Louisiana school district, regardless of wealth, spends more than the minimum required by the state for several years in a row. This suggests that the current “base” per pupil spending is no longer adequate to meet the basic needs of a district as it was originally intended.
In 2008, 39% of total funding for school districts came from the local community and district. By 2018, local funding had jumped to 45%. This increase coincided with drops in both federal and state funding as a percentage of total K-12 funding.
Louisiana schools receive more than $1 billion per year in federal funding. But this money is tied to specific programs and resources such as Title I, which allocates money to high-poverty districts, and school nutrition programs. Since most federal money is out of the state’s control and can fluctuate year-to-year, it isn’t a reflection of whether Louisiana is prioritizing funding our public schools.
State and local dollars, on the other hand, are true indicators of Louisiana’s commitment to funding public education. And by that measure, local governments are bearing an increasing share of the load. Local contributions have grown from 47% to 51% of state-local funding over the past decade.
This shift can put poorer, often majority-minority districts at a disadvantage. That’s because wealthier school districts have an easier time raising enough money to not just cover, but exceed the mandatory school funding levels. Districts where unemployment and poverty are high and property values are low have a harder time raising money at the local level.
The Minimum Foundation Program was designed to equitably distribute state dollars to ensure every school district, regardless of wealth, had the “minimum” funding necessary to provide children with an adequate education. If the formula fails to keep up with the rising cost of real estate, salaries, employee benefits, supplies, and construction, it doesn’t achieve that goal. This year’s long-overdue increase was welcome news. But if we want to ensure every child has access to a well-funded school regardless of their zip code or socio-economic status, per pupil spending must keep up with inflation.