A winner in Louisiana’s state budget: K-12 education

The Times-Picayune, June 16, 2015In a session focused on a higher education funding crisis, the Louisiana Legislature gave primary and secondary schools a boost. The budget, which awaits Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature, includes $3.7 billion for public schools. That’s about $84 million more than last year, Education Department officials said, and amounts to an extra $54 per student, for a total of $4,015.

The Legislature also found $42 million for private school vouchers, a Jindal priority.

Until the last taut minutes of the session Thursday (June 11), it looked like the base amount would stay at the current level, $3,961. But lawmakers came through at the wire.

Education Superintendent John White thanked the Legislature, saying, “Even in difficult times, a quality education for our children should always be a top priority.”

The bulk of K-12 education funding is uniquely protected in the Louisiana Constitution: The state must meet the budget request set by the Minimum Foundation Program. The Legislature may approve or reject the MFP, which the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education rewrites annually, but cannot change it.

The MFP sets the cost of educating a typical child and spells out how much extra schools should get for students who have various special needs. To get the total, legislators multiply that amount by projected enrollment. The formula may also include additional money for special programs.

The actual funding varies based on how much each district can supplement with sales and property taxes. In the year just past, the total per-pupil amount ranged from $7,760 in Acadia Parish to $11,212 in Caldwell Parish.

This spring, the state board added a 1.375 percent increase for teacher raises plus $8 million for special education and Course Choice, a program that lets students take classes outside their school. That totaled about $45 million in new revenue. Officials anticipate a 6,300-student bump in enrollment, which cost about $34 million.

If the Legislature nixes the new formula, the state continues to use the formula already in effect. That’s what happened this year. The request flew through the House but died in the Senate Education committee, and the state board didn’t have time to revise.

Committee chair Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said the Senate committee just didn’t believe the state could cover the extra $45 million. Nor were its members convinced that any money left over should go to K-12 instead of health care or higher education, two areas facing drastic cuts.

In a conversation Monday, Appel criticized how school systems spend their state money. “Louisiana is by far the highest per-student–funded state in the south,” he said, “but our teachers aren’t paid more.”

So he was “not real happy” the Legislature added a $36 million line item sponsored by Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, that essentially mimicked the MFP. It gave school districts the 1.375 percent increase and the Course Choice money.

The Legislature also found the $5.4 million the state board had requested for special education, and $8 million for testing. Appel said he advocated for both of those.

Les Landon, public relations director of the Louisiana Federation for Teachers, said the union was “extremely” happy the Legislature came through but questioned whether there really would be enough revenue. He predicted mid-year budget cuts.

Appel too was gloomy. “We probably still believe today that we didn’t have the resources” to fulfill the Legislature’s promises to schools, he said.

Louisiana Federation for Children President Ann Duplessis praised lawmakers for maintaining the voucher program, saying it was “essential to thousands of Louisiana schoolchildren from low-income families who are desperately seeking quality educational options.”

The $42 million allocation is about the same as the program had last year, when it supported about 7,400 students. Jindal’s office said Monday the program would add 600 spots.

The budget has additional line items to fund the Education Department, state board and other education projects.

Source: Dreilinger, Danielle (2015, June 15). “A winner in Louisiana’s state budget: K-12 education”. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2015/06/louisiana_public_school_fundin.html.