February 27, 2012 was not a good day for good government.
In a more than obvious display of deference to Governor Bobby Jindal, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday approved a public school funding formula that would guarantee spending taxpayer money – including local education funds - for private and religious school tuition vouchers.
With almost no public input and very little opportunity to inspect the document, BESE voted to send the $3.41 billion Minimum Foundation Program formula to the legislature for adoption. The legislature must either approve or reject the formula, but may not amend it.
If the MFP is approved by lawmakers, and if the governor’s as-yet unveiled voucher law is adopted, students receiving vouchers would, for the first time, be included in the student count of the local school board and would be eligible for both the state and local shares of education funds.
This unprecedented action raises serious constitutional questions, and is currently being reviewed by legal counsel.
The state constitution defines the MFP as “a formula which shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools."
In addition, the Concurrent Resolution, which explains the formula and accompanies it to the legislature, is clear in its expression of purpose: “To provide for legislative approval of the formula to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools …”
What’s more, voters in local school systems have adopted taxes to specifically dedicated expenses such as salaries, construction and maintenance in public schools. An attempt by the state to force local school districts to misspend dedicated revenues is a terrible overreach by the administration and an example of what some might term the arrogance of Big Government.
Audience members at Thursday’s specially called BESE meeting were shocked that the $3.41 billion MFP was presented with so little regard for the public’s right to be informed participants. Members of the board received the 27 page MFP and its pages of accompanying tables on Saturday, and had little or no opportunity to discuss the proposal with education leaders or community members in their districts.
Limited to the three minutes afforded each interested party, LFT President Steve Monaghan testified before the Board and urged Board members “in the name of full transparency and accountability” to delay their decision until the regularly scheduled March 8, 2012 meeting. Monaghan stressed that the Board had until March 15, 2012 to adopt an MFP formula for submission to the legislature, thus an action on February 27, 2012 was completely unnecessary and injurious to reputation of the body.
An impassioned, District 3 member Lottie Beebe asked the board to delay a vote on the MFP until a regularly scheduled meeting, a motion that was defeated. The 7-2 vote to approve the MFP recorded only Beebe and District 8 member Caroline Hill in opposition. District 2 member Kira Orange-Jones abstained, and gubernatorial appointee John Bennett was absent for the vote.
Currently, a pilot program in New Orleans (which received very poor reviews in a study commissioned by former BESE Board member Leslie Jacobs) is the only voucher scheme funded by the state. Its budget, about $9.5 million, comes from a special appropriation out of the state general fund. If the governor’s voucher plan remains in the Minimum Foundation Program, it will mark a radical change in the way education is funded in Louisiana.
Other MFP changes
BESE approved a number of other changes to the MFP that, like the voucher program, require legislative approval before they can go into effect.
Early high school graduation program: Local school districts will have to sacrifice some of their MFP funds for public high school students who graduate early. The governor wants those students to receive a portion of the MFP allocation that would otherwise have been awarded to their high school. The money can be used for higher education tuition within a year of the student’s graduation.
Students who graduate a year ahead of schedule would be eligible for 50% of their per-pupil MFP allocation. Those who graduate a semester early would be eligible for 25%. The plan will go into effect in 2013-14.
Non-public schools eligible for MFP funds: The Jindal plan will further squeeze cash-strapped school districts by requiring them to pay for some non-public courses and programs offered to high school students. The new MFP will require local school systems to pay some of the expenses for high school students who enroll in classes and programs that are not currently covered by the formula.
- Dual enrolment courses for post-secondary credit at universities, community and technical college
- Online courses required for graduation
- Industry-based certification programs
- Others that may be approved by BESE
For each course, school districts will be required to pay the cost of the course or one-sixth of 90% of the per-pupil MFP, whichever is less.