Education leaders discuss WISE Fund distribution

Education leaders met for the first time Tuesday to discuss how Louisiana’s colleges and universities will be able to tap into the newly created $40 million WISE Fund, but it could be August before plans for the money become clearer.

The Louisiana Legislature created the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund this session. The competitive funding tied to workforce development and research was backed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed it into law last week.

About $12.1 million of the money legislators put into the fund from the state budget comes in the form of federal Community Development Block Grant recovery funding, so that money will face additional restrictions. Members of the WISE Council, which oversees the distribution of the money before the state Board of Regents gives final spending authority, will meet again in August to discuss the parameters for schools to receive WISE dollars, but the group spent much of Tuesday discussing the limits on the CDBG portion of the WISE Fund.

Louisiana got the CDBG funding as part of the state’s recovery from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which hit Louisiana less than two weeks apart in September 2008. That money can only be used toward the benefit of 53 counties affected by the hurricanes, and just over half of it must directly benefit people below certain income levels.

WISE Council members, who include heads of the state’s university systems, the leader of the community and technical college system, and state workforce group leaders, didn’t appear bothered by those restrictions during Tuesday’s meeting.

LSU Chancellor and President F. King Alexander said that funding could go toward mentoring and advising students in high-demand programs, like engineering.

“We always have waiting lists to get in them,” Alexander said.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley suggested that the money could be used to market high-demand careers in the science and technology fields that the WISE Fund was created to benefit.

Between now and the council’s next meeting, Regents staff will be developing data to help set up the framework for the distribution of the WISE money, as well as its restrictions. Aside from the CDBG money, another $11 million can go only toward equipment and construction costs because it came from the state construction budget.

“We have a great deal of fundamental work to be done,” Regents Chairman Bubba Rasberry said. “Time is of the essence, obviously. We’re going to make it happen as quickly as we possibly can.”

Rasberry said he expects schools will receive some funding as reimbursements, which would speed up the process.

“What we have to do, of course, is develop strategic plans around this,” Woodley said.

Under the WISE Fund structure, schools will be competing largely based on the degrees and certificates they produce in high-demand fields, such as computer science and engineering. A smaller portion of the funding — about 20 percent — will be distributed based on federally funded research that the colleges perform.

To qualify for any funding, schools will have to put up a 20 percent private match from a business partner, either cash or an in-kind contribution — a move meant to foster better ties to the business community.

The Committee of 100, a private organization of business leaders, is planning to hold events across the state in the fall to tout the WISE Program and the match component.

Alexander said he thinks the meetings will give education leaders a chance to “separate the contenders from the pretenders.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .