Legislation that, for the first time, would provide state school aid for some students to attend private and parochial schools won approval Thursday in the state Senate Education Committee.
The proposal, Senate Concurrent Resolution 299, passed 4-1 and next faces action in the full Senate.
The plan authorizes the spending of $3.4 billion for Louisiana’s 700,000 public school students for the 2012-13 school year. It would mark the fourth consecutive year that spending per student would be frozen amid state financial problems.
The money goes through an allocation formula called the Minimum Foundation Program.
It was recommended by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The plan also dovetails with a Jindal-backed bill approved last month that will allow some low-income students who attend low-performing public schools to qualify for MFP dollars to attend private and parochial schools. Critics say that diversion of funds is unconstitutional, and have vowed to challenge the plan in court.
BESE President Penny Dastugue said state education leaders believe they are on solid legal footing. “I don’t think we would be here if we did not think it would withstand a challenge,” Dastugue said.
“We believe we are in good standing,” Dastugue said.
The aid is variously called vouchers and scholarships.
Louisiana’s current, limited voucher program is financed with dollars from the state’s general revenue fund, not the MFP. State lawmakers can only approve or reject the resolution but cannot change it.
Any rejection would force BESE to submit a new plan.
Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, urged the committee to reject the plan. “We believe it is unconstitutional and it is clear,” Monaghan said.
“However, this isn’t a courtroom and we won’t settle or solve it here,” he said.
Monaghan said three years of virtual freezes in the MFP has sparked school furloughs, more crowded classrooms and put some school systems in crisis.
“I believe it is toxic,” Monaghan said. “The MFP as it stands now is toxic.”
The Louisiana School Boards Association also opposed the resolution.
Carolyn Wooten, interim executive director of the LSBA, said using MFP dollars for vouchers and other questionable expenses “will only worsen the situation for schools.”
State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte and vice-chairman of the committee, predicted the MFP will spark a rash of lawsuits on vouchers and other issues.