Last week Governor John Bel Edwards unveiled his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. Thanks to another injection of federal dollars, the budget actually shows some growth over the prior year. That amounts to some good news for public education.
The increase in revenues the budget envisions is modest – about $186 million in a $36 billion budget. But almost $120 million of those new dollars will be targeted to K-12 and higher education.
The K-12 increases go directly to pay raises, a $400 per year bump for teachers and a $200 increase for school support workers. That comes on top of a $1,000 pay raise teachers received in 2019. Depending on the source, average teacher pay in Louisiana is the 8th lowest in the country at just over $50,000. The $400 raise won’t get salaries to the governor’s goal of the southern regional average, but it could move the state up a notch or two if it’s enacted.
As it turns out, the lion’s share of new education funding is directed toward higher education, which of course saw a series of huge cuts in the aftermath of the Great Recession. About $20 million of the roughly $80 million going to higher education will fund faculty pay raises that will average about 4%. That has been a big issue on campuses, where faculty pay has generally lagged other states for years.
Other revenues will fund increases in the cost of the TOPS program and a little over $11 million will help expand GO Grants. That’s great news because those grants are earmarked for students with financial need and funding for that program has generally been flat for most of its existence.
It’s also timely. As Louisiana colleges raised tuition to offset those years of budget cuts, Louisiana’s once highly-affordable higher education system became much more expensive, putting access to postsecondary education out of reach for many students.
That created a huge disconnect. On the one hand we know that the quality jobs that are available in Louisiana increasingly require more than a high school degree. To address that the Board of Regents has set an ambitious goal of ensuring that 60% of adults in Louisiana have earned a postsecondary credential of quality by 2030.
At the same time, though, college has become less affordable for much of the state’s large economically- disadvantaged population. The pandemic has only exacerbated this equity gap as we have seen university enrollments rise slightly while enrollments at the community and technical colleges, which most often serve students with the greatest financial needs, has declined. Financial aid for these students and families is critical if Louisiana is to lift itself out of the poverty and economic distress that has gripped families in our state for decades.
The bottom line of all of this is that in this most difficult time, when the state has only a small amount of new money to invest, the governor has proposed allocating almost two-thirds of it to education. When you look at the dollar amounts, that’s not enough to meet the needs of a state that already faced significant challenges. But the priorities are right.
The missing piece is enhanced support for early education. It was conspicuously absent from the administration’s budget presentation, except for a reference to more than $100 million in federal funding that the Department of Education might be able to tap for early education.
That may or may not be the best solution. At some point the state must commit to making our youngest children a true priority. But let’s hope early education doesn’t come up totally empty this year, and let’s hope that after all the changes lawmakers will certainly make to the governor’s budget, education remains the priority we all know it is.