Revised school aid plan wins support

After a three-week delay, a special state panel is expected to recommend modest changes Monday in how the state finances public schools, including a controversial program called Course Choice.

The focus of the review is Louisiana’s $3.5 billion education funding mechanism, the Minimum Foundation Program.

The committee, known as the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force, was scheduled to gather and wrap up its suggestions Dec. 13 for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Concerns about a proposal on how the state would fund Course Choice, which offers students hard-to-get classes using private providers, delayed the meeting until Monday at 1 p.m.

The panel also is expected to recommend that:

State aid for public schools increase by about $70 million for the 2014-15 school year, which represents the traditional 2.75 percent hike that was rarely seen in recent years amid state financial problems.

State leaders launch another detailed study of the MFP to make it more understandable and effective.

State aid for some career courses be doubled to better prepare students for high-wage jobs.

“My sense is that we have a lot of support for the revised recommendations,” said Jay Guillot, chairman of the panel and chief author of the recommendations.

Guillot, who lives in Ruston, is also a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will review the task force suggestions at its January or March meeting.

The panel’s chief concerns lately have focused on Course Choice, which stems from a 2012 state law pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and approved by the Legislature.

It allows high school students to take classes, including those required for college scholarships and remedial work, from private providers.

The $3 million program was initially financed through the MFP.

The state Supreme Court struck down that plan. Course Choice now is being paid for largely with a fund that includes federal dollars from an oil and gas settlement that has aided schools since 1986.

About 2,500 students are enrolled in Course Choice in this school year.

In a Dec. 9 letter, Guillot said use of the settlement as a funding source cannot be sustained.

He said he favored 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 courses.

Critics questioned whether that would run afoul of the state Supreme Court ruling.

In a new plan spelled out in a Dec. 18 letter, Guillot said Course Choice could be treated like other programs that are beyond what public schools typically offer, including dual enrollment in which students can earn high school and college credit at the same time.

Under the revision, local schools could apply for the 90 percent subsidy from the state but would retain authority over what classes are offered and who can take them.

Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association and a member of the task force, said his group can back the latest recommendation as long as it includes a suggested change in state law to ensure that local school officials have control over Course Choice.

Guillot’s latest plan was endorsed by officials of several other groups that are on the 21-member study committee.

They include Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol, LABI President Stephen Waguespack, Council for a Better Louisiana President Barry Erwin and Central Community School System Superintendent Michael Faulk.

In a prepared statement Pujol praised the push to improve workforce development.

Faulk said the changes would improve the state’s graduation and college-bound rate.

Debbie Meaux, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators and a member of the task force, said that despite Guillot’s revised recommendations, she opposes his plans for financing Course Choice.

“I really still believe that they are circumventing the court ruling,” she said of the proposal.

Meaux also said she thinks it is a mistake for the panel to recommend a $70 million hike in state aid for public schools without specifying that school districts should use part of the money to boost pay for teachers and support personnel.

Guillot said he wants to leave it up to local school districts to decide how to spend any increase.

The task force stemmed from legislation that envisioned a broader study, including whether the MFP is fair. Guillot and others said the time frame did not allow the panel to tackle those issues.