Q&A with Lead Author of Our New Orleans Public School Funding Report

August 13, 2020

Questions abound from New Orleans public school parents, students, employees and education leaders as the new school year gets under way and the pandemic persists. Just how safe will schools be once the initial virtual learning period ends? What is the process for ensuring a smooth pivot to in-classroom learning? What are the school system’s plans to usher in and maintain a safe learning environment? With guidelines constantly changing, how will education officials protect the quality of the learning experience? How will schools ensure that students have access to necessary technology for remote learning? How prepared is the school system to address mental health issues related to the pandemic?

Addressing these concerns requires expertise, empathy, collaboration, innovation, organization and effective communications. And it requires another big thing: money.

As in school districts across the nation, new costs are emerging in New Orleans K-12 public education in response to the pandemic’s challenges. These include, among other things, technology costs to support virtual learning. Finding the resources to meet these costs begins with a clear understanding of the many sources of funding for New Orleans’ unique, charter-centric school system.

BGR’s March 2020 report Learning Curve, A Guide to Navigating School Funding in New Orleans’ Unified District can help demystify that funding picture. It presents a comprehensive explanation of the roughly $650 million in annual K-12 public education funding in New Orleans. Although based on pre-pandemic research, the report discusses the recurring revenue streams schools will continue to rely upon to cover most of their expenditures.

This edition of Perspectives on Public Policy features a question-and-answer segment with BGR analyst Susie Dudis, who was the lead researcher and principal author for Learning Curve. In it, she discusses why BGR issued the report, how she prepared the research, and how Learning Curve should be useful to parents and education leaders.

Why did BGR publish this report on public education funding in New Orleans?

Research Analyst Susie Dudis

Based on initial digging and previous BGR research, we determined the community lacked a full picture of public education funding for New Orleans’ unique charter-centric school system. And it was not clear how funding changed following the 2018 unification of the city’s school system under the control of the Orleans Parish School Board and its district, NOLA Public Schools. Without that starting point, it’s more difficult for those within the system and members of the public to address short- and long-term funding challenges for New Orleans public schools. Our report is intended to serve as a resource to fill the gap.

Learning Curve also supports and encourages public discussion about strengthening the funding framework for New Orleans schools and ensuring sound financial management of the school system.

How did you approach the research for this report?

We use a methodical, independent approach to policy research at BGR that begins with observing a problem and asking questions.

This research started with two basic questions: How are New Orleans charter schools funded and how is central system management funded? Put even more simply, what money do the schools get and what money does NOLA Public Schools, the local district, get? We commonly hear that schools get 98% of the money – end of story. Or is it?

It did not take too long to identify where the money comes from, but it was much more complex to track how it’s allocated among individual schools and the district. The research required analyzing allocation data as well as the various laws, policies and formulas that determine everyone’s slice of the local, state and federal pies. And this analysis raised questions of fairness and transparency.

Our analysis recognizes that, as an urban district pioneering the all-charter model, New Orleans doesn’t have a lot of best practices to look towards. So we understood that the funding framework is also unique, built over many years by state and local leaders and dedicated members of the public. With this in mind, Learning Curve seeks to strengthen, rather than replace, the current funding framework. It does so by isolating existing weaknesses and establishing paths to improvement.

What should parents of children in New Orleans’ public schools take away from this report?

The report can help parents gain a broad understanding of K-12 public education funding: where the money comes from, how almost 90% is allocated to schools, and how NOLA Public Schools allocates the remainder to its various system management responsibilities. The report explains how allocation processes attempt – or not – to align funding with student needs. It can help answer key questions parents may have. For example, is the unified district managing revenues it receives prudently and transparently? Are school leaders overlooking any recurring funding opportunities? The report outlines a number of opportunities to strengthen what is a generally effective approach to funding New Orleans’ school system.

With a deeper understanding of public school funding in Orleans, parents are better able to engage with their charter schools and elected School Board members. They can be a bigger part of the funding process essential to educating their children and preparing them for future success.

How can charter school board members use the report?

Charter school board members have a responsibility to make the best use of resources that their schools receive. Learning Curve can help them understand the factors that determine their schools’ funding. It can help them build a stronger foundation for success at the schools they serve by increasing their knowledge of the complex web of laws and policies at the state, local and federal levels.

They should also consider supporting implementation of the report’s recommendations for improving charter school funding. Among other things, BGR calls for an up-to-date cost analysis to support NOLA Public Schools’ formula for allocating state and local dollars to charter schools. BGR also calls on state and federal policymakers to address disparities in the allocation of federal grant funding to schools (see chart).

How can Orleans Parish School Board members use the report?

Orleans Parish School Board members face unique challenges in managing limited revenues for system management. The School Board will gain at least three new members in this fall’s election. Learning Curve can help board members make informed decisions and hold the district superintendent accountable for his financial decision-making.

In addition, Learning Curve highlights opportunities for the School Board and NOLA Public Schools to strengthen the long-term sustainability and transparency of the system’s financial resources.

For example, School Board members should make sure NOLA Public Schools is prudently managing its General Fund reserves, also called the fund balance. This is the only significant resource available to address emergency needs. NOLA Public Schools has drawn on its reserves multiple times during the past few years. Preserving the existing fund balance is critically important because NOLA Public Schools has limited opportunity to grow its reserves. In our report, we recommend that the district set a goal for the Systemwide Reserve of at least 15% of its General Fund revenues.

School Board members should also push NOLA Public Schools to develop a new financial report that clearly shows how it allocates individual revenue sources to schools and system management functions. Learning Curve offers a template for structuring this report.

Finally, our report recommends that the district undertake or commission a comprehensive analysis to determine the most efficient and effective division of school and central management functions in the system.

Was there anything you learned as you were conducting research for the report that surprised you regarding funding for K-12 public education in New Orleans?

 I learned that NOLA Public Schools owns something called 16th section lands, reserved for public school purposes by Congress more than 200 years ago. School districts can generate income by leasing these lands. Unfortunately, most of NOLA Public School’s 16th section lands are located on the eastern edge of Orleans Parish, under water or marsh. In fiscal year 2019, the district didn’t report a dime from its sportsman’s paradise. By contrast, the Vermilion Parish School District raked in $1.6 million from leases of its oil-and-gas-rich 16th section lands. But if you’re looking for a good fishing spot in the Lake Catherine area, and want to support public education at the same time…

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As a comprehensive resource on fiscal issues in New Orleans public education, Learning Curve can help inform decisions in the months ahead that address specific fiscal challenges created by the pandemic. It also can guide improvements to the funding framework that could yield long-term benefits for the system and its students. BGR will continue to draw upon this research as we monitor and report on new developments in K-12 public school finances. Look for updates in PolicyWatch, a BGR email newsletter. You can receive PolicyWatch, as well as new BGR reports and much more, for free by joining our email list here.

This article is part of BGR’s Perspectives on Public Policy Series, which features insights from BGR team members about the organization and its work in the metropolitan New Orleans area.