From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Bill to tighten restrictions on poor-school spending fails.

In Education on 7 April 2009 at 3:37 pm

An attempt to make poor school districts stop stockpiling National School Lunch Act (NSLA) money failed in the House Education Committee today. The bill would require the approval of the Department of Education if a district wished to carry over to the next year more than 20 percent of the money. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joyce Elliott, had previously secured its passage in the Senate.

Despite its name, the NSLA is used to pay for several specifically approved programs, including after-school activities, tutoring and salary increases for teachers. The NSLA fund is one of several so-called categorical education funds, which the state earmarks for express purposes.

There has been some dispute over whether NSLA funds should be spent on teacher salaries and bonuses. It was suggested today that districts were saving the funds to pay for bonuses at a later date.

Rep. David Rainey, who sponsored the bill in the House, said there needs to be greater Department of Education supervision of the amount districts carry over. The bill would require the Department to establish rules determining when a district could keep an excess of the money. Rep. Rainey said those rules should not let a district exceed the 20 percent limit unless it shows an improvement in student performance.

Rep. Rainey argued that the NSLA money was not being used properly. “From my perspective, it’s unacceptable for these districts to receive the money and not spend it on its intended purpose,” he told the committee.

According to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which testified for the bill, 15 districts carried over more than 60 percent of their NSLA funding in the 2007-2008 school year.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association spoke against the bill.  He argued that the amount of money being carried over has flattened in recent years. He also said that a district the Education Department found to be in breach of the 20-percent threshold would be put in a budget bind due to the likely timing of such a ruling.

The bill, which failed on a voice vote, suffered due to its breadth. Though misuse of NSLA funding was the main issue, the bill would require the 20 percent cap for all categorical funds, a provision to which Harder objected. Though the sponsors were willing to tighten the bill’s scope, there is not enough time left in the session for an amendment.

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