Despite huge state budget problems, public schools emerged with modest gains from the 2015 Louisiana Legislature, including a $36 million hike in state aid approved on the final day of the session.
The increase marks just the third such boost since 2008 and generally fulfills what the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education sought in March.
The hike is modest by any standard — 1.38 percent — and especially because increases double that size, and larger, were common before the economic downturn.
However, it took place in a session dominated by a $1.6 billion shortfall and one where many state services faced standstill budgets or worse.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said public schools were “by far the most successful” of state services in landing scarce state dollars.
State Superintendent of Education John White said that, while some of the money is tied to state revenue thresholds, the aid is welcome news.
“We really appreciate the Legislature acknowledging the importance of public education and continuing to support it, even in a difficult time,” White said.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s initial budget proposal included a virtual freeze in state aid for Louisiana’s 720,000 public school students.
A task force earlier recommended a $75 million increase, which mirrored the 2.75 percent hike that was common for years.
BESE, in a break with Jindal, requested a $36 million boost even as members said they knew it might not be possible amid state financial problems.
Roughly half of the money is supposed to protect teacher pay boosts that averaged nearly $600 approved in 2013.
Lawmakers also approved about $40 million for newly enrolled students and about $8 million for high-cost special education students and dual enrollment.
The additional money breezed through the House but stalled in the Senate Education Committee.
The action meant that the aid would not go through the state’s traditional funding mechanism — the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.
However, that was done in 2013 and had little practical impact on school funding.
Separate legislation, House Concurrent Resolution 231 by Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, cleared the House and Senate in a bid to do the same this time.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, said the $36 million is good news for local school districts.
Richard said 44 school districts face employer health insurance premium hikes of 10.8 percent and 25 others are planning for premium increases of 20 percent. This would assist in keeping dollars flowing to the classrooms that otherwise would be routed to offset employee benefit costs,” he said.
Hollis Milton, the new president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the state aid will allow his district — the West Feliciana Parish school system — to direct stipends of about $180 to teachers.
“It is going to be a morale boost because we have asked our teachers to do so many new things,” Milton said, a reference to Common Core and other changes.
White and Jindal have feuded for months, and before the session, White said Jindal’s budget plan would force the layoffs of about 100 of the state Department of Education’s roughly 300 employees.
White said that, under the governor’s plan, the state Department of Education’s executive budget would be cut by 48 percent and dollars for standardized tests by 47 percent.
The latter proposed cut, he said, could cost the state up to $800 million in federal aid.
However, that picture changed during the two-month session.
White said the Legislature restored $8 million of the $10 million needed for testing and that no federal cuts are on the horizon.
He said that, after the initial 47 layoffs, no additional personnel reductions are planned.
The Legislature easily approved three bills aimed at trimming arguments over Common Core — House Bills 373 and 542 and Senate Bill 43.
Others that won approval are:
Senate Bill 267, to ensure equity in how special education dollars are sent to charter schools
House Bill 446, which allows elementary schools to offer firearms safety instruction
House Bill 1, which provides $42 million to fully fund Louisiana’s voucher program.
The list of education casualties include:
House Bill 505, which would abolish new teacher tenure after July 1
House Bill 359, which would require sex education instruction in New Orleans public schools
Senate Bill 74, which would repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act.
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.