Education panel shelves public school aid package

A proposed $3.6 billion spending plan for public schools was killed Thursday, sparking questions about the future of education aid amid philosophical disputes.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, took the rare step of spiking his own proposal after about an hour of testimony.

“I am not bringing this back up,” Appel told reporters a few hours later.

The request was approved by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 13 despite criticism that it failed to provide enough dollars for public schools.

The funding vehicle is called the Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP.

It outlines how basic state aid will be allocated to 686,000 public school students statewide.

Appel said the proposal — Senate Concurrent Resolution 55 — would pave the way for automatic 2.75 percent increases in state education aid in the future even if lawmakers fail to agree on a plan. He said that runs afoul of the role of BESE and the Legislature.

“Just don’t send me something that we can never accept and then say ‘Oh well, too bad, it is going to go up 2.75,’ ” he said.

“They didn’t do it this year,” Appel said. “But they could do it in future years.”

BESE, a wide range of education groups and key House members disagree.

They contend that, if lawmakers are unable to agree on a funding plan, public schools are entitled to a 2.75 percent boost, which they call a minimal increase amid soaring retirement, health insurance and other costs.

The issue is especially touchy since state aid for public schools was essentially frozen for years amid state budget problems.

Under state law, the Legislature can only accept or reject BESE’s funding request but cannot change it.

State Superintendent of Education John White and BESE President Chas Roemer, both of whom attended the meeting, said afterwards that they planned to meet with lawmakers, officials of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office and others to decide the next step.

“We want to make sure we understand what the Legislature wants with respect to the MFP,” White told reporters in a conference call after the hearing.

Appel said the next move is up to BESE.

“It is meant to suggest to BESE they better take another look at it,” he said of the committee’s action.

Aside from a special BESE meeting Appel said Senate officials think the board could, rather than submitting a new proposal, tweak the current one to address his concerns.

The dustup marks the second consecutive year that legislative disputes have threatened approval of what used to be a routine matter.

Last year the Legislature simply approved school aid in the state operating budget, used the 2011-12 school year as the basis for how dollars would be allocated and added another $69 million to boost teacher pay and other expenses.

Without additional action by BESE something similar could happen this year.

Legislators could go outside the funding formula to provide that $69 million again as well as $40 million for enrollment increases and $15 million in new special education aid and other expenses.

The $3.6 billion for school spending is included in House Bill 1, which spells out the state’s $25 billion operating budget starting July 1.

That bill is scheduled for House debate on Thursday.

Appel’s legislation that was sidelined includes the complex formula that spells out how the dollars are to be spent.

The proposal sparked opposition from several groups, including the Louisiana School Boards Association, Louisiana Association of Educators and Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

BESE’s funding plan reflects Gov. Bobby Jindal’s budget proposal.

In a prepared statement, Jindal said: “BESE should work with the Legislature on a solution that fully funds the MFP, provides for the increase in funding in our budget and abides by the Constitution.”