Panel sends public school funding bill back to BESE

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Gov. Bobby Jindal greets a crowd of schoolchildren Wednesday before speaking during a rally on the State Capitol steps in support of his voucher program, which allows some students to attend private and parochial school at state expense.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Gov. Bobby Jindal greets a crowd of schoolchildren Wednesday before speaking during a rally on the State Capitol steps in support of his voucher program, which allows some students to attend private and parochial school at state expense.

A state Senate panel Wednesday rejected a $3.5 billion funding request for public schools, further muddling an already confused picture on how classrooms will be funded.

The Senate Education Committee approved a resolution, without objection, that asks the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to submit a new request in light of last week’s ruling by the state Supreme Court.

The court’s 6-1 decision held that the state cannot use the Minimum Foundation Program — the key source of state aid for public schools — to also finance vouchers for some students to attend private and parochial schools.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has said state aid for vouchers will continue but exactly how remains unclear.

The funding request submitted by BESE in March includes MFP funds for voucher students for the 2013-14 school year, sparking predictions last week that the state school board would be forced to meet again and submit a new plan.

Chas Roemer, president of the board, said earlier this week that attorneys and others concluded the initial plan could be legally tweaked by the Legislature and that a new funding request was not needed.

Roemer did not respond to an email request for comment on Wednesday after the committee vote.

BESE officials later released copies of a letter from Roemer to the chairman of the committee.

The letter says the committee appears to have reviewed a flawed funding proposal rather than one that anticipated a possible adverse court ruling.

The session ends on June 6.

The school aid provides basic assistance for about 700,000 public school students statewide.

The plan approved in March would essentially freeze state assistance for the fifth consecutive year amid state budget problems.

In a related development, state Superintendent of Education John White said the state faces an unexpected $30 million expense this year because of last week’s ruling.

About $12 million of the charge stems from dollars owed by the state to local school districts as part of the costs for vouchers, which are being used by nearly 5,000 students in the current school year.

Much of the rest of the expenses stem from a requirement that the state pick up the full tab for some schools, including certain charters, under a policy that was supposed to be ended in the current financial year.

The court ruled that, because the Legislature failed to meet technical requirements for the current funding formula, the package was “void from the outset.”

White said that means the aid plan the Legislature approved for the 2011-12 school year is in effect.

“There is now an annual cost that the state has to assume that the state was not anticipating,” White told reporters.

Both White and Jindal said they are optimistic that the Legislature will come up with the $30 million.

Jindal, who spoke to a pro-voucher rally on the south steps of the State Capitol, told reporters that the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget will meet later this month to tackle part of the shortfall.

The governor said that some of a $30 million allotment set aside earlier for public school enrollment increases is available.

Backers said the gathering, which was sponsored by the Black Alliance for Educational Options, attracted several hundred parents and children.

Some in the crowd chanted “You promised to put kids first.”

White said legislative leaders have been made aware of the problem and they are optimistic that it can be resolved.

He said the final, $6 million payment for voucher students in the current school year can also be financed.

Since the ruling, Jindal has repeatedly said the funds will be available for the nearly 8,000 students set to receive vouchers for the upcoming school year.

However, since the court ruled that the money cannot come from the MFP, it will have to be a separate item in the proposed budget, and subject to new legislative debate.

White said vouchers will cost the state about $45 million for the 2013-14 school year.

Michelle Millhollon of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau contributed to this report.