Public Affairs Resource Council Hits On Local Education Funding Trend

On Friday, after the end of the legislative session, the Public Affairs Resource Council put out an analysis piece spotting trends in Louisiana highlighted by the session.

One of the most prominent – and interesting – is what PAR called the trend toward shifting funding responsibilities to local governments.

Shifting state support for local areas

Louisiana’s level of state support for local school districts is relatively high compared with most other states. Under this administration, the annual Minimum Foundation Program allocation of state dollars to the districts has held steady on a per pupil basis for three years, leaving the school systems to absorb escalating costs, which are particularly acute for employee benefits. The state also has stopped financing bonuses for teachers with national certifications and has downsized the Department of Education.

These and other moves during difficult financial times have indicated what appears to be an underlying policy shift to relieve state government of some of its traditional burden in assisting local governments and to place more responsibility on the parishes and school systems. If this trend continues, it could have significant impacts on the nature and role of state government in Louisiana. With fewer resources forthcoming from the state level, local governments will be pressured to streamline, live with less or increase local sources of revenue. The new reality could result in more local governments asking voters to approve tax increases. Whether seen as a positive or negative development, this theme is an important one to watch.

When the Times-Picayune referenced the observation in an article on Saturday, most of the commenters proceeded to hack away at Gov. Bobby Jindal for not caring about education, which demonstrated once again that if you want to lose faith in the people of Louisiana the best way to do so is to read comments under an online Times-Picayune article.

Most of those commenters have completely missed the point of the trend being described – namely, that funding and control of K-12 education in Louisiana is evolving away from Baton Rouge and toward the local school boards and parents. And this is a smart trend, regardless whether it might cause a wholesale freakout among the Democrat establishment in the state.

It’s not just education. Louisiana’s state government funds all kinds of things that local governments take care of elsewhere in the country. No other state pays firefighters, for example – that’s considered a local responsibility. And the Minimum Foundation Program, which spends $3 billion paying teachers in Louisiana rather than have their salaries handled at the local level, might not be unique but given that it represents about half of K-12 spending in the state it’s a staggering amount of support to local governments.

We’ve seen the results of this state support to education – they’re largely nonexistent. Louisiana’s teachers get paid quite well – they’re very close to the Southern average, and yet educational outcomes in Louisiana public schools are at the bottom. The program simply doesn’t work.

You can’t fix public education in Louisiana at the State Capitol. Change has to come locally. Ideally that change will come household to household, and one trend expressed in legislation this year is for a move toward increased tax credits for parents who use private schools – those credits are now as high as $5,000 per child, but typical private school tuition will come to more than that and with an aggregate per-student expenditure of some $10,500 in Louisiana those parents are saving the state a great deal of money. Legislation making it easier to open charter schools or to pair those schools up with industry also advanced, taking advantage of the successes seen in places like New Orleans – where a heavy reliance on charters has promoted a steep increase in test scores.

And the Jindal administration last year put in place a regime in which local school boards can opt out of state regulations in an effort to find innovation and efficiency. That program hasn’t produced much change yet, but as the state holds the line on expenses and the financial pressures on local school boards make for more difficult choices in the future, the strategy of giving the locals more freedom to spend a diminishing amount of state dollars more wisely will begin to take shape.

Smart observers are now predicting that public education will be THE issue in Louisiana in this fall’s election and in next year’s legislative session. Whether the coming fight will take on Wisconsinesque characteristics is questionable, but the approach the governor and the legislature are backing – less money and more freedom for the locals – is more or less the same as the one Gov. Scott Walker pushed in that state. In the meantime, teacher tenure – or the removal of it – is a litmus test for one of the more significant conservative benefactors in Louisiana politics. From the Baton Rouge Business Report’s Daily Report of about a month ago

Candidates for state offices who hope to gain the support of Cajun Industries’ chairman, deep-pocketed political activist Lane Grigsby, can expect to be asked their position on eliminating tenure for public school teachers. “During this next election cycle, every candidate that comes before every organization that I sit on is going to have to tell that organization how they feel about teachers’ tenure,” and whether they would commit to eliminating tenure for new school teachers, Grigsby says. “Florida just did it,” he says. “It can be done. Louisiana needs to be one of the leaders, not one of the followers.” In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a law ending tenure for new hires and requiring districts to come up with an evaluation system to determine which teachers get merit pay raises and which might face dismissal; the system would be at least halfway based on how much students improve on standardized tests. Proponents say the law will help attract and retain the best teachers, while opponents say it imposes an unfunded mandate on districts and requires compensation and evaluation systems that haven’t improved student learning when tried elsewhere. Teachers unions are expected to challenge the law in court, according to Florida media reports.

After three years on the job Louisiana public school teachers get tenure. And once they get it, they generally can’t be fired. Only 2.38 percent of experienced teachers get fired in Louisiana. In private schools, the national average is 9.8 percent. For Grigsby, and lots of other people, this won’t do at all – and it’s another example of a move to de-standardize the working relationship between public school teachers and their employers. That promotes competition, by the way – if pay and working conditions are different from one school system to another (or ideally from one school to another), those systems or schools then must compete to attract the best teachers and thus turn out the best possible outcomes. The next step then becomes forcing those schools to compete for students – a step which may be coming at the end of this trend.

But those numbers on firings, along with Louisiana’s consistently bad performance in educational outcomes, indicate that less rules and more freedom for decision-making at the local and household level are a necessary trend. Jindal had a hand in creating the trend, but this election cycle will be a good gauge as to how far it goes.



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