For more than 30 years I have been involved in the New Orleans public schools as an administrator, school leader, volunteer tutor, parent and grandparent. I am encouraged by a citywide discussion of how to ensure fair funding for students and schools.
In 2015, a law was passed to ensure charter schools across the state receive appropriate funding based on the proportion of high-needs students actually served. Given the unique landscape in New Orleans, this law asked for a special committee of 12 educators and community partners, including the superintendents of Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District, to develop a unified citywide funding formula. Over five meetings, the committee carefully developed a formula, stopping at each step of the way to consult with schools outside of the committee. On Feb. 24, the members voted 10 to approve, one to oppose and one to abstain.
The committee also sought to minimize the impact of any funding cuts for schools currently serving low numbers of special education students by establishing a cap so these schools will only see their funding reduced by a maximum of 2 percent relative to their current funding.
This proposed formula is not “taking away” money from the selective-admissions schools, who serve low numbers of special education students, as some have charged. Rather, this is correcting the previous system for funding gifted and talented and special education in Orleans Parish, which was seriously flawed in that schools received close to the same funding even if they did not serve many special education students. The schools that are crying loudly in pain are those who benefited from this flawed system although they are being asked to absorb only a 2 percent cut.
Consider this data from the selective-admissions schools most concerned about the new formula: Audubon, 28 percent gifted and talented, 5 percent special education; Ben Franklin, 49 percent gifted, less than 1 percent special; Lake Forest, 24 percent gifted, 8 percent special; Lusher, 33 percent gifted, 4 percent special. Average among all schools under School Board and RSD control: 6 percent gifted, 11 percent special.
I value the work all of the schools in our city are doing. My own children attended selective schools, and I applaud their work. At the same time, I believe all of our schools are doing important work and that all schools should be funded fairly, with those serving students with more expensive needs receiving an equitable proportion of the funds to meet those needs.
Anyone who runs a public school knows that special education students require more expensive services. Special education students are more likely to need school-provided transportation and additional equipment both in the school and on the bus. Federal law requires more staff for many special education designations such as autism. I once paid an exceptional autism teacher $72,000, and she could serve only two students, for which the state provided $32,000. She was worth every penny, and those students are now gainfully employed and one is living independently with some supervision. No one is arguing that gifted and talented students don’t deserve the best that we can offer. But they are simply less expensive to serve.
I never expected those who would receive less to cheer. What I didn’t expect was the level of opposition to what is obviously a more fair method for allocating funding.
The highest form of citizenship is acting on behalf of the commonweal. We cannot become a city of privilege at the expense of the most in need, just as we cannot ignore the needs of those with gifts. We should thank this committee for working hard to derive what is a very reasonable, practical compromise.
Barbara MacPhee is a veteran principal in New Orleans schools and is a charter school board member.