Despite huge money problems, Louisiana can make improvements in public schools like those called for in a new report, the leader of an education advocacy group said Tuesday.

The key is upgrading the most troubled public schools with federal dollars through the Every Student Succeeds Act, said John Warner Smith, chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Education's Next Horizon.

"If we do it right, I think that is probably going to be our best opportunity given where the state is and probably going to be for some time now," Smith said of recurring state financial troubles.

Smith made his comments on the heels of a new report that said Louisiana and six other southern states need to accelerate efforts to improve public schools.

The key steps are making the South the best place for teachers; improving the path for high school students to college and careers; targeted spending for struggling students and new aid for students' physical and emotional needs, according to the 41-page study.

The report was pushed by education advocacy groups in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Officials of the groups decided a year or two ago that they wanted an education snapshot of the region that included talks with educators, parents, policymakers, students and business leaders in each state, said Alan Richard, an education writer and author of the report.

"It is very interesting to me that a lot of people were singing from the same song; that, is, children in our states are not afforded the same opportunities in education, even with all the progress we have made overall," Richard said.

However, education gains often carry a pricetag, and the Louisiana Legislature on Monday starts a special session on the state's roughly $1 billion shortfall.

In addition, Gov. John Bel Edwards' office has already signaled that basic state aid for public schools -- called the Minimum Foundation Program -- will be recommended for another freeze for the 2018-19 school year.

That is where federal dollars mandated by ESSA can help with troubled schools, Smith said.

More than a dozen D and F public schools, and systems with struggling schools, will get $8.1 million to finance improvements, state officials announced on Jan. 22.

Schools that landed the first-round aid had to spell out plans to ensure a high-quality curriculum, properly trained teachers and quality ways to measure student learning.

"These funds are going to be coming into this state for many years," Smith said.

"We have to get engaged and stay engaged, with a higher level of engagement than we have had in the past," he said.

Poll results included in the study show that voters in Louisiana and elsewhere say there are differences in the quality of education for students.

A total of 77 percent of voters in Louisiana agreed with that view, according to the survey, as did 74 percent of respondents in the region.

"A lot of people haven't been in the schools," Richard said.

"But you can tell we are not putting our best foot forward when it comes to providing education that students need," he said.

In Louisiana, achievement gaps between white, black and low-income students narrowed in some cases between 2005-15 on the nation's report card.

That includes black students in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, and for students from low--income families in fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading.

Gaps widened for students from low-income families in fourth-grade reading, according to the study.

Smith said Louisiana is already addressing key recommendations in the study.

The state is overhauling the way teachers are trained for the classroom, implementing sweeping changes in early childhood education and trying to reinvent career and technical education for high school students.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.