Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday night he aims to keep state aid for public schools at current levels amid Louisiana’s budget crisis.
Edwards’ comments mark his most definitive statement on the issue since some education officials started sounding alarms that basic aid for schools might be cut for the first time in decades.
The dollars are allocated through a $3.7 billion funding mechanism called the Minimum Foundation Program.
“I am committed to making sure, first of all, we don’t cut the MFP,” Edwards told a town hall-style gathering sponsored by the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s two teachers unions and a political ally of the governor.
Edwards said keeping state dollars at current levels will be more complicated than usual because state services face a $2.7 billion shortfall over the next 17 months.
“The budget problems are very real,” he said. “They are very deep.”
State school aid will be debated during the regular session that begins on March 14.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education soon will submit a request to the Legislature. Lawmakers can accept it or reject it but cannot change the request.
Edwards said he has directed BESE to include roughly $44 million in its request that was provided to public schools last year through separate legislation outside of the MFP.
Doing so, if the Legislature goes along, would ensure that public schools maintain funding for the 2016-17 school year that they had for the 2015-16 school year.
During more robust economic times, state aid for public schools typically rose by at least 2.75 percent.
“I don’t think we are likely to see any growth,” Edwards said.
The governor made his remarks during a 25-minute address to about 75 people gathered at the LAE’s “Ask An Educator” gathering at Broadmoor High School in Baton Rouge.
Edwards, who noted his wife Donna is a music teacher, then sat on a panel that included LAE President Debbie Meaux, Princess Moss, secretary-treasurer for the National Education Association, which the LAE is affiliated with, and Jeanne Johnston, the governor’s senior education policy adviser.
Topics ranged from help for school support workers to what a governor can do to make classes more engaging for students.
In other areas, Edwards criticized the state’s policy of linking 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation to tests seeking to chart the growth of student achievement.
He said he doubts any other state relies so heavily on test results to rate teachers and that, as a state House member for eight years, he offered an amendment that would use student achievement gains for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.
The LAE and Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the state’s other teachers union, have long criticized how teachers are reviewed.
That policy stemmed from former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s push to make sweeping changes in public schools.
Edwards said Jindal left office with Louisiana ranked 49th in education achievement.
The governor also repeated a wide range of education themes that were prominent in his successful run for governor last year.
He said school districts rated A or B by the state should have the final say on whether new charter schools are authorized. BESE does so now.
Edwards also said vouchers — state aid for some students to attend private schools — should not be available for kindergarten students who live in top-flight school districts.
He said vouchers also should be off-limits to students in C-rated school districts. “C schools are not failing schools,” he said.
Organizers called the meeting a chance for teachers and other workers to share concerns or recommendations on how to improve public schools.
Some education leaders say they are concerned state aid to public schools faces slashing this year instead of the freezes or small increases common for the past six years.
State services face a shortfall of at least $750 million by June 30 and $1.9 billion, and likely more, for the financial year that begins on July 1.
A special session to tackle budget issues is expected to start on Feb. 14 and last about three weeks.
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