Taylor Barras finds center stage in less than 24 hours _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- A very rare contested election for House Speaker. Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, left, chats with Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, prior to the vote Monday. Barras won after two voice votes for House Speaker.

Update: 12:15 p.m., Feb. 25, 2016

One day later, a $44 million cut proposed for public schools is on its way out. Click here to read more.

Original story

In a surprise move, state aid for public schools would be chopped $44 million by June 30 under a bill approved Wednesday in the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Additional cuts endorsed would cripple the state’s ability to give ACT college readiness exams in March or this year’s version of the Common Core tests April 25-29, a top official of the state Department of Education said.

The vote was 14-9.

The legislation, sponsored by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, next faces action in the full House during a special session that has to end March 9.

The school aid reductions are part of a $117 million list of spending cuts crafted late Tuesday that caught key lawmakers and the education community off guard.

“This one really jumped out at me,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, told Henry during discussion of the proposed cut in state school dollars.

The measure, House Bill 122, would shelve the 1.375 percent increase the Legislature approved on the last day of the 2015 session.

The money is supposed to help protect $600 teacher pay raises approved in 2013, aid special education students and help finance dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit.

Henry said the proposed spending cuts are unpleasant but needed amid Louisiana’s roughly $900 million shortfall by June 30.

He said trimming $44 million in school aid would allow the Legislature to “plug some holes” in TOPS and other areas.

“We don’t enjoy doing that,” Henry said. “But we have to create some priorities.”

The list of reductions is $87 million more than Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended.

The governor, then a state representative, was a key backer of the $44 million hike for public schools last year.

The increase was separate from Louisiana’s $3.7 billion public school spending plan — called the Minimum Foundation Program — but serves the same purpose.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, a member of the committee, blasted the bill. “Your constituency and mine will be dealing with these cuts,” Smith said.

The school aid reductions were denounced by a parade of public school leaders.

“Please, consider what we are asking today,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association. “Take a hard look at what those school dollars mean to school districts across the state.”

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said she worked in a school district in the 1980s that, when confronted with similar cuts, had to close schools for one week. “I would implore you to find other ways to address our shortfalls in the budget,” Meaux said.

Henry’s proposal came one day after state Superintendent of Education John White said $4.4 million in mid-year cuts could be absorbed without damaging essential services.

However, Henry’s bill would trim basic aid to 69 public school districts that educators rely on for a wide range of operations.

Edwards has said his aim is to keep state aid for public schools at current levels for the 2016-17 school year, including the $44 million.

Henry’s bill would also cut another $2.5 million from the state Department of Education’s administrative arm and $5 million that helps pay for state-mandated reports from private schools.

Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent, told the committee the $2.5 million reduction “would impact our ability to administer” the ACT or this year’s version of the Common Core tests — called LEAP 2016.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter @WillSentell.

For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/