Task force recommends changes in state school aid

A state panel voted 12-2 Monday for a series of changes in how the state funds public schools.

The recommendations go to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which will review them before submitting its 2014 school year funding request to the Legislature in March.

Lawmakers, who begin the 2014 session on March 10, then vote whether to accept or reject BESE’s funding request.

The state is spending $3.5 billion in the current school year.

One of the lone disputes during a 90-minute meeting focused on the task force’s call for a roughly $70 million increase in aid to schools, minus any restrictions to local districts on how the money would be used.

“Voting for this is a vote to trust our school district leaders,” said Jay Guillot, chairman of the Minimum Foundation Program Task Force.

Patrice Pujol, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and a member of the panel, said the unrestricted aid would give the “necessary flexibility” to local school systems.

Leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators, who are both on the task force, criticized the lack of any plans to direct how the increase in state aid would be used.

LFT President Steve Monaghan said that, in the past, districts were required to use 50 percent of the new money to boost the pay of teachers and others.

Monaghan said that was important in trying to elevate educator salaries in Louisiana to the level of other states.

He said the issue faces more airing at BESE and in the Legislature. “The debate will go on further than this room,” Monaghan said.

LAE President Debbie Meaux echoed Monaghan’s views.

Both cast “no” votes on the panel’s recommendations.

In another area, state Superintendent John White praised how a controversial program called Course Choice would be funded under the panel’s plan.

Course Choice offers students hard-to-get courses through private providers.

The state Supreme Court struck down initial plans to pay for the $3 million program using the same source that finances public schools — the Minimum Foundation Program.

The courses are now financed through a fund that includes federal dollars, which Guillot said cannot be continued.

The panel suggested that local school districts apply for a 90 percent state subsidy and retain authority over what classes are offered and who can take them.

“This is a reimbursement to districts that choose to participate in a program,” White said.