After five years of virtual freezes, state aid for public schools is up in the air again, another potential casualty of Louisiana’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall.
The aid, which goes through a complex formula called the Minimum Foundation Program, is the lifeblood for a system used by about 720,000 students.
Schools are getting $3.6 billion this year, which makes the assistance one of the state’s biggest expenditures.
Educators say how schools fare this year is crucial, amid rising costs of retirement, health care and classroom technology.
But the state’s latest money woes have sparked worries that public schools face their biggest threat since spending per student was first frozen in 2009 and then for years afterward.
Colleges and universities — a potential rival of public schools for scarce dollars — face funding threats of $300 million. “Everybody has to be concerned with the numbers that have been thrown around at this point,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.
Two key upcoming events will shed light on the future of public school aid.
Gov. Bobby Jindal is set to unveil his budget on Feb. 27.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which makes its request to the Legislature, has to submit its budget proposal by April 3 for a session that begins on April 13.
Forecasts this time range from a freeze in state aid to a modest increase.
An outright reduction, which has not happened in recent memory, has been mentioned but is considered less likely unless Louisiana’s budget picture takes another downturn.
A task force of superintendents, teachers union leaders and other educators has recommended that state aid rise by $75 million, which is the 2.75 percent inflationary increase that was common during flusher times.
However, even that recommendation is contingent on the state’s financial outlook, which means BESE is not locked into endorsing the request.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and a member of the task force, said he is encouraged by recent comments by the Jindal administration.
Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols said in a prepared statement that MFP funding has risen by 15 percent since 2008.
“As we budget for the next year, we are committed to protecting classroom funding and to continuing to strengthen K-12 education in Louisiana,” she said.
Richard said he takes that to mean support for a $75 million hike.
“I think the onus is now on BESE to produce a resolution that includes the recommendations of the MFP task force,” Richard said.
BESE President Chas Roemer said, “I don’t know what the amount is at this moment.”
Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, one of two “no” votes when the task force endorsed a $75 million hike in state school aid, said an increase will be difficult. “Without a doubt, that will be a hard sell,” Appel said in an email response to questions.
House Education Committee Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, echoed that view.
“Obviously, I would like to see an increase, but everybody would like to see an increase,” Carter said, a reference to other state agencies.
Under state rules, the Legislature can only accept or reject BESE’s school aid request but cannot change it.
Last year, the panel’s initial request was killed after Appel said it would ensure yearly increases of 2.75 percent even if the Legislature failed to reach agreement.
A revised version later won final approval, which boosted state spending per student to $3,961 from $3,855, and $5,236 per student overall when money from other sources is added in.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said how public schools do financially in 2015 will largely stem from how forceful BESE is in seeking more dollars.
“If they don’t do a good job of defining what the need is, if BESE only goes through the motions ... then it plays into the hands of dissidents on the task force,” Monaghan said.
Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said state Superintendent of Education John White will play a major role in BESE’s funding request.
Meaux said her sense is that White is “on the fence.”
“We can’t be on the fence,” she said.
“We understand money is tight,” Meaux said. “At the same time, our job is not to be worried about where the money is coming from but to do what is right for the education system and make sure it is funded properly.”
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