At Hogwarts, the school Harry Potter attends in literature, there’s a magical mirror called Erised that reflects the “desire of one’s heart” rather than reality.
Harry’s best friend Ron, for instance, looks into the Mirror of Erised - “desire” spelled backwards - and instead of seeing the klutzy nerd he is, Ron sees a world-class athlete showered with adulation by all the pretty girls.
“You have to compare reality to reality,” said C.B. Forgotston, a self-described conservative who blogs on budget issues.
Gov. Bobby Jindal last week claimed on a campaign “fact sheet” that he had “reduced the state budget by a stunning total of $9 billion, or 26 percent.”
Asked to explain how they came up with that number, Jindal’s press secretary Kyle Plotkin said the administration subtracted this fiscal year’s $25 billion budget from the $34 billion budget for fiscal year 2008.
Forgotston, former general counsel for the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee, said Plotkin was comparing estimates. What really happened was that anticipated federal money for designated programs did not come in as expected, so the budget numbers were adjusted accordingly, Forgosten said. The revenues in the two estimates that Jindal uses include $19.7 billion in federal money for 2008, which dropped to $11 billion for the 2012 fiscal year, Forgotston said.
The Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ Les Landon criticized Jindal’s claim on the “fact sheet” to have improved education by increasing the total MFP spending 8.2 percent.
“I don’t think there’s anything uncommon about politicians picking a specific number to try to make themselves look better than they are,” Landon said.
The Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, is a complex formula used to help pay for public elementary and secondary schools. By its very nature, the MFP formula can increase spending in times of economic downturn.
According to the documents posted online by the state Department of Education, the MFP calculated a $3,752 base amount per student in October 2007 - before Jindal came to office. The following fiscal year, the base per pupil allocation increased to $3,855. Added to that base amount is a premium for particular types of students who need, for instance, “gifted and talented” or “special education” instruction.
The base amount per student has remained the same for the past three fiscal years. “Standstill” in the MFP means local districts have to pay more to cover costs like inflation and mandates, Landon said.
So was the boasted increase in education spending a direct act by the governor, or part of the formula?
Landon said one of the biggest reasons for the increase in the total MFP spending was an influx of students, particularly “at risk” students, one of those classifications that gets more money added to the base amount allocation. “At risk” includes children who live at or near the federal government’s poverty standard.
Jindal’s cabinet secretaries and aides argue that the poverty data they tout counts fewer Louisiana residents as “poor” now than when the governor took office. When asked if that should mean fewer, not more, students receiving monies in addition to the base allocation, Landon paused, then said: “Whatever. I don’t know what they want to call what. We have more students and more who qualify as ?at risk,’ and that, by law, requires more spending within the MFP.”
Penny Dastugue, who heads the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said MFP spending increased largely because of the influx of new students. But also, she said, MFP spending went up because some districts saw a decrease in the sales and property taxes that are used to supplement the state’s funding for education. The MFP has an equalization mechanism that increases the state’s payments to districts suffering an economic slide, said Dastugue, who was appointed to BESE by Jindal.
A few other states cut spending for public schools, Dastugue said. But this state’s government has kept the formula the same for the past three years, as educators argue, even when it meant increasing the funds necessary, as the governor brags.
“In a technical sense, from their perspectives, they’re both right,” Dastugue said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address firstname.lastname@example.org.