Filed Under:  Politics

After caving in to business lobbyists in Special Session, legislators pit educational institutions against one another

29th March 2016   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

Throughout the 2015 state election season, the Editorial Board of The Louisiana Weekly asked each and every candidate seeking our endorsement, “If it came down to a cut in K through 12 education—in order to save SUNO or any of the other Historically Black Colleges and Universities — if that were the choice, how would you vote?”

A Faustian bargain to be sure, yet most legislators—especially African Americans Representatives when cornered—said they would accept a moderate cut in the Minimum Foundation Formula for K-12 in order to save an HBCU.

If the recent special session is any indication, they lied. The real test comes now, though, as the legislature grapples with a $750 million deficit for the coming fiscal year, the inability to raise any taxes until a second potential special session in late June, and an impasse between Democrats and Republicans on hiking another penny in sales tax. (That’s the only tax increase the GOP is likely to accept, and more taxes on food constitute an anathema to Democrats.)

Thanks to the inability of the Legislature and Gov. Edwards to close the deficit for this fiscal year during the Special Session, next year’s deficit comes on top of another $70 million soon to be carved out of the current Higher Ed and Hospital budgets. Since the Governor already made universities swallow a loss in their last quarter payments for the Taylor Opportun-ity Program for Students, cuts in TOPS cannot make up the gap.

HBCU’s were little affected by that suspended collegiate scholarship tuition payment, as they possess only a handful of TOPS scholarship students. In the past, that has meant for the last six years that LSU has endured few real reductions in funding, as nearly every student is on TOPS, while the HBCUs have endured the lionshare.

The operating budgets of the ULL and Southern System have been ravaged to the tune of almost $400,000,000 in the last decade, with the HBCU’s taking the disproportionate cuts, Now, the operating budgets are again under the scalpel, facing extraordinary cuts before June 30, unless the money comes from somewhere. The impact is so felt at SUNO, in fact, that the university may not be able to continue operating. The budget is cut to the point that Administrators are balancing keeping the lights on and paying professors at the same time, if cuts go any further.

The reality confronting Louisiana legislators is that the only part of the state budget left unscathed in recent years is Minimum Foundation Funding going to kindergarten to high school education, while other areas (mostly Higher Ed and Hospitals) have been reduced by a whopping $1 billion—quite a retort to those who say Louisiana as a “spending problem not a revenue problem.”

The State House of Representatives attempted to move monies from the K-12 budget to protect university funds in the Special Session. HB 122 authored by Appropriations Committee Chair Cameron Henry and introduced on February 23, 2016 proposed a $44 million reduction to Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding.

In fact, Henry did not target existing expenditures. His objective was to redirect to Higher Ed and hospitals the $44.2 million that then-Representative John Bel Edwards convinced lawmakers the previous autumn to add to the education budget. The increase in funding was passed to pay for a $600 pay raise approved for teachers in 2013, aid to special needs students, and dual enrollment costs.

Initially, Henry’s bill equally cut all areas of K-12 including the MFP, but floor amendments to HB 122 instead redirected General Fund money that would otherwise have been allotted to the Louisiana Department of Education. Instead of proportionately cutting the Ed budget across the board, spreading the pain “so to speak,” the amendment proposed that LDOE absorb a $44 million cut.

The Edwards Administration immediately objected, warning that the education agency would no longer be able to fulfill some of its constitutional obligations, if the amended HB 122 passed. LDOE wouldn’t be able to run preschool programs around the state or make a final round of voucher payments to private schools. Almost the entire department would have to be laid off. Regardless, the House voted 98-0 for the amended HB 122, but at the Governor’s behest the State Senate killed the measure prior to the end of the Special Session.

Despite his historic support for K-12 (and his Public School teacher wife), Gov. Edwards has indicated that due to the state’s $750 million shortfall, the $3.7 billion requested by the Board of Elementary & Secondary Education for public schools for 2017 likely will have to be trimmed. Included in BESE’s request was the $44 million that lawmakers approved last year thanks to Edwards.

The Governor frankly stated, “I don’t believe that $44 million is going to be there,” opening the Administration’s willingness to consider K-12 cuts for the first time. Part of Edwards’ solution to avoid cuts in the MFP has been to target school vouchers, essentially gutting the program. New scholarships to private schools, he has indicated, might end. That, however, will be a harder case to make to the pro-voucher GOP House now.

Three weeks ago, as a money saving measure, the Governor proposed restrictions on the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which allows low-income students in schools rated by the state as C, D or F to apply for a scholarship to attend a parochial or private school. The initiative started thanks to former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal and serves more than 7,100 students, almost 90 percent of whom are minorities.

The Governor would limit scholarships only to students stuck in D or F schools. He says C schools “by definition, are not failing”. Opponents immediately noted that Louisiana schools get a C grade even if fewer than 25 percent of students achieved what the state calls “mastery,” which LDOE defines as “well prepared for the next level of studies.” Last year some 365 state schools earned a C, more than the number that notched D and F combined. More than one in three voucher students hail from a C school.

Edwards had based his justification on more than just saving money. His allies have repeatedly cited a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research that found Louisiana voucher students slid academically compared with public school counterparts.

However, that report examined data from one year—2012-13, the first year the program launched statewide. Critics at the time argued that one-year constituted an insufficient sample.

Recent data seems to suggest they many have had a point. A new report released three weeks ago by the La. Department of Education concluded that in 2015, the voucher program’s student gains outpaced the majority of districts. Or, as proponents phrased another way, were the voucher program counted as a La. school district in 2015, its “scholarship student body” would rank Ninth in the state for annual performance growth.

Moreover, parental enthusiasm for the voucher program remains. In 2014, over 12,000 applicants vied for the 8,000 slots. Over 80% of that number were African-American children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The new data makes it highly unlikely that the pro-voucher GOP legislature (not to mention several pro-voucher members of the Democratic Black Caucus) will go along with the Governor’s easy budgetary fix. And, regardless, eliminating every voucher scholarship would provide insufficient funds sufficiently to shield university budgets from further catastrophic cuts.

Likely, at least 5 percent of the $3.7 billion in Minimum Foundation Funds going to supplement primary and secondary school budgets will be proposed for cuts. The House and Senate balked at reducing the MFP in the Special Session. Now, though, with at potential $338 million in proposed university cuts for Fiscal 2017, with HBCU’s far more affected than LSU, will the legislators put K-12 reductions on the table?

Machinations in the House Appropriations Committee over the next week will reveal legislative willingness. The deadline to deal with the $750 million deficit looms. The 2016 Regular Legislative Session will adjourn sine die on June 6, 2016. The next fiscal year starts July 1.

This article originally published in the March 28, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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