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If you've got it, spend it

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Most of last week's news coverage of Governor Beebe's address to legislators laying out his priorities for the new legislative session focused on the biggest ticket items with long-term ramifications for the state budget. But, an item early in the speech that received almost no media coverage has more immediate ramifications for the children of the state's most challenged families.

Just after rightly praising the historic progress that the state has made in the area of public education in the last decade, Beebe said, "Money that comes into Arkansas meant to close achievement gaps is often stashed away instead of being spent efficiently on the very purpose for which it was intended."

One has to be pretty deep in the weeds of Arkansas education policy to know what Beebe was referencing. As part of its response to the Lake View case, the General Assembly enhanced per pupil education spending in the state but also provided additional funds to districts with significant rates of poverty to be spent on a long list of programs meant to close the achievement gap. How much districts get depends on the percentage of students who come from families eligible for free or reduced school lunches under the National School Lunch Act (NSLA). In some districts, many NSLA funds are being "stashed away" rather than being spent to aid students.

In 2009, Rep. David Rainey of Dumas and others tried to limit the amount that districts could carry over to a very reasonable 20 percent of their allocation. But that bill was brick-walled in the House Education Committee. The anecdotal evidence of significant carryovers was overwhelmed by potent, behind-the-scenes opposition of local school superintendents and school boards. Those who lead school districts at the local level didn't want the state telling them how and when to spend this money.

It's not their money, of course; it's state money meant to create true equity in the state's educational system with the subsequent positive impact on our state's economy.

As we enter the new session, those who had to rely upon anecdotal evidence to make their case in the last session now have expansive data on the subject, thanks to the usual good work of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. The group's report found that more than $25 million of the $145 million allocated to school districts under the program was squirreled away in the 2008-09 school year. Only 12 percent of the districts and charter schools spent all of their money and five districts carried over a majority of their FSLA dollars. One of the most troubling cases was the Dollarway School District; with 93 percent of its students eligible for free/reduced lunches and most of its students failing to achieve basic proficiency, the Pine Bluff area district left $1,521,733 in its coffers that should have been used to improve the educational achievement of its students.

The report also notes that much of the spending that does occur goes for items that haven't been shown to close the achievement gap. More effective targeting of dollars will require a fundamental alteration in legislation, shortening the list of projects eligible for FSLA spending and raising the protective hackles of local school officials.

Governor Beebe has shown in his words that he gets the issue. It will be a true test of his leadership to turn those words into the action that will create a true opportunity to learn for Arkansas's poor kids.

Jay Barth is a professor of political science at Hendrix College. He is filling Max Brantley's column space while Brantley is on vacation.

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