BESE faces big issues Thursday

Louisiana’s top school board kicks off its two-day meeting on Thursday with a pair of new members, a debate on state aid for public schools and sudden questions about classroom operations.

The gathering marks the first session for Stephen Waguespack, former chief of staff and executive counsel to Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Judy Miranti, of New Orleans. Both are Jindal appointees.

Waguespack replaces Penny Dastugue, former president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Miranti takes the place of John Bennett, of Port Allen, and will be the nonpublic school representative on the 11-member panel.

The key issue facing BESE is a vote on the Jindal-backed, proposed $3.46 billion funding request for public schools for the 2013-14 school year.

The plan would mark the fifth consecutive year that state school aid per student has been frozen.

One issue likely to spark controversy is the fact the funding package — called the Minimum Foundation Program — will include a second round of state and local aid for vouchers, which allow some students to attend private and parochial schools.

Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, ruled on Nov. 30 that the voucher law is unconstitutional.

A hearing on the appeal is set for March 19 in state Supreme Court.

The MFP request says that, if the voucher law is finally struck down, the aid for vouchers will be removed from the funding package to avoid having the state’s entire funding plan for public schools scuttled.

State services face a $1.3 billion shortage to maintain funding levels amid disappointing revenue collections.

State Superintendent of Education John White said he wants this year’s request to try a new but limited way to aid Louisiana’s 82,000 special education students.

White said change is needed because only 29 percent of special education students graduate from high school, which is the second-lowest rate in the nation.

Under current rules, $313 million in state aid is parceled out on the basis of the number of special education students.

Under the new rules, money would be spent based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

However, this year’s switch would be limited to just 10 percent of the state aid for special education students.

BESE’s meeting comes just three days after 19th Judicial District Court Judge R. Michael Caldwell struck down Louisiana’s teacher tenure law, which won legislative approval last year.

BESE has spent considerable time hammering out rules to govern the new teacher reviews, which are under way now, and other parts of the suddenly imperiled law.

The same statute requires performance objectives for local superintendents; redefines the role of local school boards; bans the exclusive use of seniority in layoff decisions; and allows local officials to revamp salary schedules.

Whether and when BESE or the Legislature will try to hammer out any contingencies in case the law is finally struck down is unclear.

The first chance is during the 2013 regular session, which is from April 8 to June 6.