JBE Stumbles Toward One Solution To The State’s Budget Crisis

In a bit of a shocking development, it looks like Louisiana’s Democrat governor, who heretofore has been seen as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the state’s teacher unions and school boards, will look to the state’s $3.7 billion Minimum Foundation Program as a source for savings to plug a $400 million budget hole for the coming fiscal year.

Amid state budget problems, Gov. John Bel Edwards next month will recommend a freeze in basic state aid for public schools, an aide to the governor said Tuesday.

Donald Songy, education policy adviser for Edwards, made the first-time disclosure during a meeting of a task force that advises the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

BESE is set to make its funding request to the Louisiana Legislature on March 7-8, and the advisory panel said a $35 million hike in basic school aid should be its top priority.

But Songy said Edwards weighed that option, had discussions with officials of the budget arm of his administration and opted not to back what would be a 1.375 percent increase, to $4,015 per student.

“They cannot support the per pupil increase in the executive budget,” Songy told the 27-member panel. “He is putting a realistic budget out there.”

The governor is set to unveil his executive spending plans next month for the legislative session that begins April 10.

A major revenue shortfall is expected for the financial year that begins July 1.

More, please. Much more. If nothing else, all the right people are pissed off.

Despite the governor’s stance superintendents and others said their top priority is the $35 million increase in basic state aid for all students.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and a member of the task force, said more money for basic school aid would give superintendents more flexibility.

Part of the task force debate focused on whether the group should recommend what it thinks schools need versus curbing recommendations in light of state budget problems.

“We need to say that we need the money,” said Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators.

When the House of Representatives issued their budget-cut recommendations, a $29 million cut to state spending on K-12 education was in the plan. Edwards is actually increasing the school aid by $18 million – $10 million for career education and college prep classes, and another $8 million for “high-need” students – as part of some other funding he envisions.

But freezing the growth of the Minimum Foundation Program is a whisper of a potential solution.

Let’s explain.

What you constantly hear from politicians of all stripes in Louisiana is that the state’s budget is difficult to fix because the only things which aren’t dedicated are higher education and health care. In the latter case, it’s because some 46 percent of all the money Louisiana spends goes through the Department of Health and Hospitals, and as Sen. John Kennedy noted earlier this week the state health care agency is a rapacious predator which is laying waste to everything else in the budget.

But when you get beyond DHH, it’s that Minimum Foundation Program which represents the most egregious waste in the budget.

Education spending in Louisiana comes from three sources. About 10 percent comes from federal dollars, the dispensation of which could be set for major changes as the aggressively pro-school choice Trump administration prepares for its nominee as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to complete confirmation. The other 90 percent comes almost evenly between state dollars and local dollars.

Those state dollars flow through the MFP, and that comes to the $3.7 billion figure noted above.

And the MFP is a fountain of waste. It’s the reason Louisiana is 49th in outcomes of public K-12 education despite being 18th in per-student spending.

Yes, you read that correctly. And that disparity has been the case for a number of years. Louisiana used to be 49th in outcomes while ranking near the bottom in spending and our political leaders decided to remedy that problem by throwing money at it – and that money went absolutely down the drain, and continues to do so.

Understand that nationally, since 1970 public school enrollment has risen by five percent while public education payrolls have increased by 95 percent. Louisiana isn’t any different than that. In most of the state’s least-populous parishes the school district is the largest employer – by a wide margin in many of them. The money for that growth flows out of Baton Rouge.

It’s important to understand, further, that the MFP is structured to disincentivize the improvement of public education.

East Baton Rouge Parish is a perfect example of this. Our readers are surely aware that in the state’s capitol city the public schools are atrocious and have been getting worse for decades; the effect of that poor performance has been to chase away middle class families both black and white to neighboring parishes like Ascension, Livingston and West Feliciana, where the schools are good. In more recent years there has been another development; namely the creation of independent school districts in incorporated cities within East Baton Rouge Parish like Baker, Zachary and Central (and, likely soon, St. George). As families and students have migrated out of Baton Rouge to the suburbs, the students in the EBR system have become more predominantly black and without question poorer.

And because of the way the MFP is structured, as a poorer school district EBR is catching more and more state dollars as a result. All told, EBR spent just under $14,000 per student in 2015-16, which is almost $4,000 more per student than Central and Zachary do. And EBR is a “C” district ranked in the bottom 20 of the state’s 71 school districts, while the other two are in the top 10.

If you’re on a school board, which source of funding do you like better? Do you want revenue from locally-generated tax dollars, which must be periodically renewed by the voters every few years, or would you rather have it from state dollars which flow automatically from a funding formula that incentivizes the school system to insure the students in it are poor rather than wealthy or middle class?

You already know the answer.

And you know the best way to shrink the state’s budget – and its budget problems as well. It’s to drain the MFP and make those local school systems generate their own funding from their own taxpayers. That might mean making adjustments to Louisiana’s exceptionally-generous $75,000 homestead exemption so as to make local tax bases ready for more property taxes to pay the freight, but that could be done. It’s a big fight, and if you mention these things to politicians the reaction you get is that it’s political suicide to even suggest such a change, but anybody who tells you Louisiana does this the right way is lying – and they know it.

And if you recognize that what we’re discussing is a model that looks an awful lot like how Texas does things, you get the prize.

Texas’ public schools are outstanding. You could make a good argument that Texas has the best public schools in the country. Wisconsin claims that title, but Texas’ white students score better than Wisconsin’s, Texas’ black students score better than Wisconsin’s and Texas’ Hispanic students score better than Wisconsin’s. Wisconsin has a different demographic mix than Texas, and therefore a better overall score, but adjusted for that factor Texas is better. And people pay much higher property taxes in Texas than they do in Louisiana (and in return there is no state income tax), but the money those property taxes bring in is local and it’s accountable to the local voters who pay it. So it’s spent intelligently – or else there’s hell to pay on Election Night.

John Bel Edwards won’t embrace a Texas model, even though he ought to. But since he’s run out of places to trim Louisiana’s budget and has to swallow hard and at least freeze the MFP, maybe the state’s legislators can begin the discussion about abandoning the dysfunctional and inefficient funding model which insures Louisiana wastes more of its K-12 education dollars on worse results than nearly any other state.

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