If J.R.R. Tolkien was writing about this session of the Louisiana Legislature, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards would be cast either as hero Bilbao Baggins on a budgetary quest or the power-mad, super-spender Sauron, depending on who is telling the story.
The journey began with Republican House Speaker Taylor Barras’ four-month refusal to accept the Revenue Estimating Conference’s recognition of higher-than-expected revenue collections.
Barras and the Republicans, who incidentally want to defeat Edwards’ reelection bid in October, argue that Louisiana shouldn’t saddle itself with ongoing expenses should the economy turn sour. Edwards wants to spend more to shore up state services.
After Barras earlier this month accepted the higher figure — though not has high as the REC and Edwards first sought — action shifted to the arena of K-12 public schools and early childhood education.
The Republican-dominated House Education committee voted 9-5 along party lines Tuesday to reject the state Board of Elementary & Secondary Education proposal to raise school funding by $39 million.
Education Committee Chair Nancy Landry, a Lafayette Republican who is no fan of Edwards, argued the state can’t afford both pay raises and a boost in public school funding. In fact, the extra $39 million could endanger pay raises that everyone agrees are necessary, she said.
Besides, both advocates for public schools and proponents for early childhood education, usually allies, have their eyes on that $39 million.
BESE decides these things subject to legislative approval. And the elected members of the state’s top school board backed Edwards’ proposed $3.85 billion Minimum Foundation Program. That includes $39 million more for the 2019-2020 school year as well as pay raises of $1,000 for teachers and $500 for staff.
The MFP is a formula of Byzantine complexity that decides how much school districts receive in basic state aid.
Once upon a time, the MFP went up 2.75 percent each year to cover cost of living increases. During the Jindal years, however, those annual hikes ended. At the same time, with the state’s economy struggling and parents being laid off, the generally free-to-attend public schools saw more students, largely at the expense of tuition-charging private and parochial institutions.
When the MFP doesn’t include money to cover inflation, school boards must divert dollars from the classroom to pay for more expensive gasoline, jacked-up health insurance premiums and other higher costs. As it is, the first quarter of every dollar goes to pay pension expenses. And the increased pay teachers receive also will increase their benefits upon retirement.
After a decade where the MFP went up only once, Edwards is seeking a 1.375 percent increase.
Republicans argue, as did Baton Rouge Rep. Rick Edmonds, a former church-based school administrator, that Louisiana is already spending near the U.S. average for public school students: $12,153.
Unless BESE reconsiders the additional $39 million in the MFP, few new dollars will be available for early childhood education. BESE won’t meet again until May.
The governor’s budget didn’t include significant funding for the Child Care Assistance Program, which helps finance education for children whose low-income parents are at work or attending school.
"It is an essential part of the education system," said state Education Superintendent John White, who was among the first to complain about the lack of money in this year's budget proposals for the chronically underfunded program.
What we’re talking about is educational day care from birth to age 3. That is a critical phase for brain development: Children need to spend time learning letters and numbers, interacting with other children, rather than watching television. Landry and White point to studies that show early education results in fewer children ultimately requiring special education or repeating grades.
About 15,000 families are enrolled in the program, down from 40,000 years ago. The waiting list is about 3,300 families, and White has said that number could rise to about 10,000 later this year when some federal aid expires.
The federal government puts up substantial money for the program. But this is not cheap stuff. Families still must pay about 80 cents of every dollar the early education program costs where their child is enrolled. Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, has said an additional $40 million from the state would address the waiting list and boost state reimbursement rates. That could lower the out-of-pocket costs for the parents to, say, 75 cents of every dollar.
Legislators are having troubles choosing sides in this budgetary dilemma.
"It seems like a ‘Sophie's Choice’," New Orleans Democratic Rep. Gary Carter said last week as if William Styron was reporting on the session. "It is either appropriate for our schools or early childhood education."