SADOW: Biden’s Billions Will Suppress School Choice In Louisiana

The recently-enacted federal spending bill that Democrats barely pushed Congress through won’t help the country economically. But it will pursue a leftist agenda that includes suppressing school choice and accountability to the detriment of Louisiana children.

Less than 10 percent of the money in the new law directly addresses immediate effects imposed by the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. As for the rest: expansion of unemployment benefits to simulate a universal basic income, check; money to states that increases the more a state taxes and spends and locked down its economy over the past year, check; pension bailouts for unions, check; subsidies to offset the hemorrhaging of socialized health care spending, check; all sorts of progressive pet projects, check.

But perhaps the most insidious part of the spending law, of which schools in Louisiana may garner half of the state’s allocation, force-feeds dollars into traditional public schools while discriminating against non-traditional options. Before the bill became law, Louisiana Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards raised some eyebrows when his recent budget presentation massaged one-time money – use of which he previously characterized as not “honest budgeting” – to include $40 million for education pay raises. This would create a continuing commitment for which future dollars aren’t available, unless taxes rise.

Eyebrows rose further still when subsequently the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took up Edwards’ boost and more than doubled it in its fiscal year 2022 funding formula, creating an ongoing additional $82 million commitment. Constitutionally, the Legislature may accept or reject the formula. If not accepted (as occurred last year), the latest formula applies, which would not produce raises or as much additional ongoing extra costs.

Except that the spending law has a provision that prevents reductions in elementary, secondary, and higher education spending in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to go below the proportion of the state’s overall spending (averaged over fiscal years 2017, 2018, and 2019), although the requirement can be waived by the Secretary of Education. In other words, the flooding from this pot of dollars, from which Louisiana might receive as many as $200 million, would mandate that the state take on new commitments or it couldn’t use it. Worse, if the Legislature rejected the new formula, given higher spending that might occur elsewhere in state government, even if for one-time purposes, this may run afoul of the spending law and force acceptance of the new formula.

Worst of all, none of this pot may go directly to non-traditional schools, only through the state and governors, who are given a slush fund. Edwards’ demonstrated hostility towards non-traditional schools and education reform in general means he can use these resources to try to advance his long-standing but until now fruitless agenda of meaningful retrenchment of school choice and accountability.

BESE, with supposedly a reform majority (and likely bolstered by the outcome of the upcoming District 4 special election) could stand up to this. It’s highly debatable that an across-the-board $400 annual teacher and $200 annual support staff pay raise plus $40 million more spread to districts will do anything to improve student outcomes when the state already ranks 30th in per pupil expenditures (32nd when adjusted by in-state taxpayer income) yet has the worst outcomes among the states. Not enough dollars aren’t the cause for such poor performance.

Instead, BESE should follow the mold of its request for $2 million for stipends for mentor teachers, targeting the money for excellence. For example, BESE could cut the district increases and repackage the pay boosts solely to classroom instructors based on merit.

Regardless, if bound to try to wring new commitments, BESE should keep in mind that families increasingly have rejected public school offerings, especially during the pandemic with almost 20,000 fewer children enrolled in public schools last month as opposed to a year earlier (although charter school enrollments increased around 1,000). Rather than try to prop up the anti-choice and anti-accountability elements of the system that causes its underperformance and subsequently flight by families to alternatives, as Edwards seems bound to try with the influx of gift dollars, BESE should use the formula to counter that. And if that doesn’t happen, the Legislature needs to reject the formula and take its chances.

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