SADOW: Louisiana House Republicans Rewriting Education Spending

It seems Louisiana’s House Republicans have turned things up a notch to improve the state’s dismal elementary and secondary education.

In the quest to fund this for fiscal year 2020, to date the Senate has backed the rare alliance of Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards and legislative Democrats with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, controlled by Republicans. The Minimum Foundation Program continuing resolutions express their preference, not just a pay raise for educators of $1,000 and support staff of $500 yearly but also a 1.375 percent increase for other aspects of education.

The MFP formula sets a benchmark that the Legislature must accept or reject. If it rejects, the last-approved version applies. That means approval of this formula locks in the raises and extra spending until any future BESE wants to change that. If not approved, then no raises would occur through the MFP, even though most legislators regardless of party have expressed a desire to see that occur in an election year.

In the Senate Education Committee that vetted the formula in SCR 3, only Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel voiced skepticism about that. This echoed his GOP colleagues on the House side, who over two weeks earlier had rejected that same document, recommending instead on a party-line vote removal of the general increase from the House MFP instrument, HCR 1 (the two are identical). Among others, leader of the House Education Committee Republican state Rep. Nancy Landry questioned whether Louisiana got enough bang for the buck in educational outcomes, and whether local districts shouldn’t do more on their own to increase pay.

Plenty of evidence points to the state not spending efficiently in education. Despite ranking around the middle of states in spending per pupil, on national exams Louisiana students score at the very bottom in almost every subject. Even several states with higher proportions of students in poverty and which spend less per student have theirs outperforming Louisiana’s.

By calling upon keeping the pay raise in the MFP but backing out the general increase, House committee Republicans served notice they think higher pay may produce better outcomes (not that average educator salary in the state is absurdly low, ranking 34th among the states) but won’t reward districts with more money for any other purpose, in essence telling them to reprogram funds to spur improved student outcomes before receiving anything extra. Then other House Republicans upped the ante.

Earlier this week, in considering the general appropriations bill HB 105 by GOP state Rep. Cameron Henry, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee preempted a planned meeting of BESE. The committee not only wrote in the raises to that bill, it increased the educator hike to $1,200 and support staff’s to $600, but it also didn’t include the general increase.

Essentially, this moots the BESE meeting that would have decided whether to follow House Education’s request. If BESE had stood pat with the Senate, House members would have had to choose between denying that increase but not having the raises, or accepting both. This way, the House can have the raises without the general increase, by voting down this year’s MFP formula and relying on the FY 2019 version.

And it also puts the onus on local districts. As a 2012 state law prohibits lowering educator salaries, unless changing next year’s formula to include such raises or Legislature including the line item again in the FY 2021 budget, local districts would have to pick up an estimated $120 million to fund continuance.

Further, it shows the House GOP doesn’t see this as entirely a money issue. Bumping up the raises with extra money worth about half of the general increase request demonstrates suspicion that the districts should get any general increase.

This could evolve into a power play by House Republicans to shape this year’s formula how they want it, by encouraging districts not wanting to risk assumption of the extra burden to pressure BESE into seeing things the House GOP way. Even if the present scenario played out with this line item in and using last year’s formula, this would meet the goal of making local districts more responsible for teacher pay in the coming years.

Regardless, this indicates House Republicans and their GOP sympathizers in the Senate will force this issue to turn out to their liking, giving them great leverage over Edwards and other legislators who desperately want to deliver the pay raise. Perhaps only this kind of power politics will change the overspending, underdelivering nature of Louisiana elementary and secondary education.

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