Louisiana has decided against pursuing Race to the Top federal education grants, despite a protest from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and a near-final finish in the previous grant round.
“The grant has strings attached that will force more state and federal control on our education system,” said Ruth Johnson, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services. “The Early Learning Challenge adds more red tape to a system already mired in red tape.”
After this announcement, Landrieu wrote to Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).
“It is puzzling to me how Louisiana could have passed up this opportunity,” she said. “Your decision will have a negative impact on thousands of children in our state. I hope your reasons for failing to apply for these funds are strong enough to justify these consequences.”
‘Exact Opposite Approach’
“[Louisiana departments] completed a thorough analysis of this grant and determined that it is the exact opposite approach our state should take to help our kids,” said Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin in response to Landrieu. “We need to streamline the governance structure, funding streams and quality standards in our early childhood system—and the grant would only make things worse by reducing flexibility and adding more micromanagement and regulatory obstacles.”
Thirty-five states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico have applied for RTT’s second round, which offers winners grants for early-childhood programs. Based on its low-income student population, Louisiana could have vied for $60 million in federal funds. Louisiana’s annual K-12 education budget is $6.8 billion. Texas and South Carolina have also publicly declined to apply for RTT funds, citing similar concerns.
Because Louisiana students have had among the worst standardized test scores for many years, “there’s a lot of interest” in education reform there, said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy in New Orleans. Education is Jindal’s strongest policy area, contributing to his broad popularity, he continued. Jindal won reelection in October by sweeping the primary with 66 percent of the vote against nine competitors.
Danger in One-Time Funds
Plotkin emphasized the grant would provide “one-time dollars” yet require the state to create and continue funding programs after the grant was spent.
Louisiana had been a favorite to win RTT dollars in the program’s first round, but it lost out to several other states, causing the Jindal administration to rethink RTT, Kane said. The previous application cost Louisiana an “enormous” amount of time and money, he said.
“People will argue any time there’s a dollar of federal money available, you have to jump on it, but I don’t think that’s wise,” Kane said. “Be careful about taking the quick lump sum of money, because down the road it might cost you more.”
Louisiana has rejected other federal offers, including stimulus money to extend unemployment benefits. Accepting those funds and their requirements would have “put [Louisiana] on the hook for more money than they would have been getting from stimulus funds,” he said.
“Louisiana will ultimately be better off for not incurring more federal regulation over their early education system,” said Lindsey Burke, a senior education policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “Louisiana’s leaders can provide options for children without Washington’s micromanagement.”
Louisiana is currently considering how to revamp its early-childhood education programs and use the $1.5 billion in annual spending on them in ways that simplify funding, organization, and standards, Johnson said.
“Adding more money to a system that is inefficient and mired in red tape will not effectively address the needs of our children,” said acting Louisiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Ollie Tyler.
The state is still fleshing out the details, but plans include measures that have worked for Louisiana in upper grades, such as identifying “highly effective” teachers and evaluating student outcomes, Johnson said.
“States need to allow private preschool providers to flourish, and should not crowd out private care by growing government preschool,” Burke recommended. “If a state is going to create taxpayer-funded preschool, dollars should be voucherized so that children can attend a provider of choice.”
Image by Gage Skidmore.