Minimum Foundation Program Task Force 022020

A 28-member state Minimum Foundation Program Task Force met Thursday, Feb, 20, 2020, to debate how much state aid for public schools should rise. Gov. John Bel Edwards has recommended a $39 million increase for the 2020-21 school year.

In an about face, Gov. John Bel Edwards' office Thursday proposed a pay raise of about $500 for teachers, less than two weeks after the governor's initial spending plan excluded any such hike and triggered widespread criticism.

The issue surfaced during a meeting of a key advisory panel to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The group, called the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force, overwhelmingly rejected the $500 proposal that was offered by Richard Hartley, Edwards' education policy adviser.

The panel later voted 15-4 to recommend to BESE that state aid for public schools rise by about $80 million – 2.75% and double the amount recommended by the governor. In addition, half of the $80 million would have to be used to boost teacher salaries in districts where average pay is below the Southern regional average.

Hartley abstained on that vote.

He said after the meeting that the state cannot spend money that has not been recognized by the group that sets Louisiana's financial outlook, called the Revenue Estimating Conference.

Why Edwards suddenly changed his stance on how to boost teacher pay is unclear.

Caroline Roemer, a member of the task force and president of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, directed that question to Hartley during the meeting. "He (Edwards) is committed over the course of his term to raising salaries to the Southern average," he replied.

Hartley made a similar comment after the meeting.

His proposal also said that, if the state recognizes more revenue, aid for school districts should rise by $39 million, which mirrors the governor's plan from two weeks ago.

Teachers in Louisiana are paid an average of $50,359 compared to the 16-state average of $52,178, according to the latest figures available, 2017-18.

Edwards successfully pushed a $1,000 teacher pay raise through the Legislature last year.

Many of the state's roughly 47,000 teachers believed that similar or bigger hikes would take place yearly, and with the governor's support.

But Edwards initial budget proposal, unveiled earlier this month, included a $39 million hike in state aid for school districts but no pay boost for teachers.

Aides to the governor said at the time that local educators could use some of the money to boost teacher pay.

Teachers and others others then accused the governor of breaking his promise to educators.

The debate over what to recommend to BESE pitted how to address teacher needs against how much is reasonable amid the state's modest budget outlook.

Joni Smith, a former state Teacher of the Year and task force member, said she recently encouraged an eighth-grade student to consider a career in teaching.

Smith told the task force that the student replied "I would never be a teacher. You all are not paid well."

Keith Courville, executive director of the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, proposed at one point boosting teacher pay by $2,000 per year and $1,000 for support workers – $202 million per year.

"I still think the governor's proposal shortchanges teachers," Courville said.

But Doris Voitier, one of Edwards' three appointees on BESE, noted that ambitious teacher pay hikes carry a pricetag for taxpayers.

"For every $1,000 we are looking at another $100 million," said Voitier, veteran superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School District. "We have to look at what is going to be realistic," she added.

The proposal that won approval was offered by Debra Schum, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Principals.

It urges BESE to seek a hike of about $80 million for public schools, and that any additional dollars should be earmarked for pay raises for teachers and other school employees.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, opposed Schum's plan.

She noted after the meeting that it would not ensure across-the-board-pay raises for teachers, only hikes for those in districts where average pay is below the regional average.

BESE is expected to vote on its school aid request to the Legislature on March 11.

State lawmakers can accept or reject the request but cannot change it.

Sandy Holloway, president of the board, attended the task force meeting and said afterwards that the $80 million increase request is reasonable.

The governor's initial budget request, aside from the $39 million increase for school districts, includes another $26 million to pay for more students and increased costs for special education and Louisiana's career and technical education program – Jump Start.

The Minimum Foundation Program is the formula used by the state to allocate $3.9 billion in annual state aid for public schools.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.