Another budget completed, another round of cheeping from Louisiana’s education Chicken Littles. Only this year, those with anything close to genuine grievance stayed silent, while others replaced them with overwrought and meritless complaints.
From the end of 2015 to the latest state budget, state sources of higher education revenues fell $163 million to $2.35 billion, despite increases in tuition and fees. Much of this drop came from paying only 70 percent of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students. For elementary and secondary education, officials allocated only $28 million less, leaving $3.856 billion. The difference came from slashing a supplemental appropriation toward salaries shepherded through last year by Gov. John Bel Edwards, then a state legislator.
In the past several years, the higher education establishment would have criticized this 6.5 percent decrease, summoning a mythology of insufficient state support — and arguing that it resulted in relentless raising of tuition and fees, pricing more students out of college every year. That thinking fuels caterwauls from the likes of Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo, who has declared Louisiana higher education well on the way to privatization. His employer, the Board of Regents, also has deemed college increasingly unaffordable.
Of course, this is all buncombe. Louisiana taxpayers have subsidized 40 percent of higher education costs, which ranks above the portion paid in a number of other states. Nine states pay just 20 percent of higher education costs, leaving Louisiana some distance from “privatization.” Moreover, 26 years ago, Louisiana’s full-time-equivalent tuition was 38 percent above the national average. This figure dropped below parity with the introduction of TOPS and widespread community college options. With tuition in 2014 more than $1,000 below the national median and ranked 40th among the states, the direct cost of college for Louisiana’s students is just 81 percent of the national norm, even after years of tuition and fee increases. Public support since 1990 also rose from 71 to 80 percent of the norm, now ranking 33rd per enrolled student.
However, because higher education officials braced for much larger cuts this year, the final budget numbers elicited sighs of relief. Instead, school superintendents, union mandarins and voucher supporters moaned about public education reductions causing teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms and programmatic cuts.
Granted, voucher advocates have a case. Decrease of this appropriation by $2 million shaves almost 5 percent from the program, which will leave student demand unmet and likely will force some current recipients out into the cold, contrary to promises made by Edwards.
But protests over the public schools’ funding reductions have no grounding in reality. State taxpayer funding for this part of the budget took a “whopping” 0.7 percent cut, with only a quarter percent increase in student numbers from last year to this one. As of 2013 — when the system had $170 million less total and more than 6,000 fewer students — Louisiana ranked 26th in per-student funding among the states and Washington, D.C. It’s not like Louisiana’s public schools are starving for taxpayer support — even as their aggregate student achievement scores, while improving, rank close to the bottom nationally.
If the relative lack of progress comes from paucity of instructional dollars, schools ought to look at their own priorities. Although Louisiana’s teacher pay in 2013 ranked 22nd nationally by cost of living, exceeding the state’s per capita income by nearly $9,000, per-pupil spending on instruction ranked only 28th. By contrast, the state had the 19th-highest general administration and 20th-highest school administration costs.
This miniscule year-over-year cut in state resources for public schools, the first in three decades, is by no means, in the words of one union official, “devastating.” These schools receive more than enough money, especially given their performance as a whole. Reallocating more funds to the classroom should more than compensate for the tiny reduction.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana Government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at hwww.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate. Email him at email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.