School aid plan likely to spark arguments

A controversial public school program called Course Choice would be subsidized by Louisiana’s chief source of state school aid under a plan recommended Tuesday by the chairman of an education task force.
Jay Guillot, who is also a member of the state’s top school board, spelled out his suggestions ahead of Friday’s final meeting of a panel set up to review the state’s $3.5 billion public school funding system called the Minimum Foundation Program.
One proposal likely to spark arguments would revamp aid for the state’s new Course Choice program, which is aimed at offering students hard-to-get courses, including those required for college scholarships, dual enrollment and remedial work.
The option, which stems from a 2012 state law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, was initially supposed to be paid for through the MFP. However, the state Supreme Court struck down that plan.
The courses are now paid mostly through a fund called 8g, which uses federal dollars from an oil and gas settlement that haS aided schools since 1986.
That source provides $2 million of the costs and the state Department of Education another $1 million.
About 2,500 students are enrolled in the program in the current school year.
In a letter to the task force, Guillot said the funding source for Course Choice is not sustainable. He said he favors a new subsidy in the MFP that would allow some of those dollars to reimburse local school districts for 90 percent of the cost of the course.
Private providers who offer the classes would be paid at the start and end of the course to ensure accountability, said Guillot, who lives in Ruston.
Michael Faulk, a member of the task force and superintendent of the Central school system, said he has questions about Guillot’s Course Choice plan.
Faulk said if the money is routed one way “it goes against the Constitution” but if it amounts to a separate pool of money in the MFP that local school districts apply for “that is another thing.”
Backers contend that Course Choice offers students vital options, especially for those attending troubled public schools in rural areas.
Opponents argue that the program is a drain on the state’s school fund.
Debbie Meaux, a member of the task force and president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said the Course Choice plan would add more complications to the already complex MFP and is likely unconstitutional.
Meaux said she prefers that the program be financed with state dollars outside the MFP.
Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association, raised similar concerns.
Brigitte Nieland, also a member of the panel and who follows education issues for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, praised Guillot’s plan, said it would stabilize funding for Course Choice and allow it to expand.
Guillot also recommended that:
n State school aid rise by $69 million for the 2014-15 school year with local school districts given latitude on how they spend the extra money.
n Additional state aid be used for career education courses.
n A long-term study be launched on how public schools are financed, including costs of an education, pre-kindergarten expenses and retirement costs.
The task force recommendations will be sent to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
BESE submits its public school funding request to the Legislature in March.
The 2014 regular legislative sessions begins on March 10.