Special interests in Louisiana’s public education system have not given up in trying to protect their power and privilege, as indicated by a suit filed regarding funding of charter schools that seeks to erode the state’s school choice options.
An alliance of regressive forces, school boards and teacher unions, will argue in front of state district court that, essentially, certain kinds of charter schools are ineligible for funding through the main mechanism of apportioning state financial support to public education, the Minimum Foundation Program. They argue that some types, roughly 25 schools drawing $60 million from the over $3 billion distributed, are not “public” schools and not run by a school district of some kind. Therefore, they claim the MFP is ineligible through which to channel money.
This echoes the decision last year where the Louisiana Supreme Court determined that MFP money could not go to funding the scholarship voucher program that pays parents a chit that can be used at a private school, as it said the purpose of the MFP was for public education. And even as this logic provides a rationale for a suit on this basis, it also provides the grounds to reject it absent a very activist role on part of the judiciary.
While the plaintiffs built the basis of their suit on many mentions in the Constitution and law of how funding is to go to “parish and city school systems,” they ignore the very beginning of the article that addresses the MFP: that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education shall “determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools” (emphasis added). Thus, regardless of whether the state charters a school directly, the MFP may fund it because it is a public school. Only the most ideologically-driven judges could sublimate the fact that there’s a yawning chasm between the state giving a voucher to a family who then creates an appropriation to the state upon using it to pay for private school tuition and the state funding a government-owned school whose operation is contracted out to a non-government entity, to give this suit a chance at succeeding.
But this is just a preceding tactic in the larger strategy of the plaintiffs, which loathe charter schools for differing reasons: for unions, because charters much more effectively weed out subpar teachers and more appropriately tie pay to performance and are far less likely to have unionized work forces; for school boards, because these take power and money out of their hands and reduce the ability of school systems to be used as political experiments or patronage dumps, and for ideologues because charters’ presence makes them less able to shape education around a political agenda. If these forces can detach the kinds of charter schools authorized directly by BESE, not by local governments, from the MFP, the subsequent tactic is to try to block funding for them.
In the case of voucher funding, the state simply rerouted that money out of the MFP formula, which is created by BESE but must be approved or not unchanged by the Legislature, into a separate line item appropriation. In this instance, something similar could happen, but the regressive interests’ hope would be that their legislative allies could muster enough votes to amend out any line item appropriation for this purpose from the operating budget.
That’s a longshot, for BESE members, who largely support charters, almost certainly would approve of a formula redone this way and Gov. Bobby Jindal and his allies would present a budget with this funding. Further, charter school sentiment is strong in the Legislature, not the least reason why being academic research generally on Louisiana charters but specifically on those operating in New Orleans demonstrate these produce significantly better outcomes than do traditional public schools. Still, it could happen.
What if, for example, to try to roll back the Common Core State Standards initiative now firmly rooted in Louisiana that enough typical charter supporters say they would vote to strip charter funding to leaving in CCSS measures? Many of these individuals typically make for strange bedfellows with unions, but they have formed an alliance with them on CCSS opposition and, with elections next fall, might want to grub for some votes from vested interests actively involved in elections like unions, so it’s not beyond reason that enough of them might sell out previous positions as a bargaining tool, and even carry through with the threat that, in conjunction with the usual union- and big-government-friendly Democrats, could defeat this budgeting option.
There are other solutions in that case, such transferring such unfunded schools to the authority of the Recovery School District, which only just got out of the business of directly running schools, which the suit does not dispute can fund its charters through the MFP. But the plaintiffs’ point is, if not to minimize as much as possible the use of charters, to gum up the works as much as possible. The suit must succeed for that to happen, but, if so, then the politics get interesting.