BESE approves state aid plan

Despite fervent opposition from special-education advocates, Louisiana’s top school board Thursday approved a $3.5 billion spending request for public schools.

The vote was 8-3 and followed six hours of testimony.

A final tally by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set for Friday but no change is expected.

The plan would then go to the Legislature, which begins its 2013 regular session on April 8.

The proposal, which is called the Minimum Foundation Program would freeze state aid per student for the fifth consecutive year amid disappointing state revenue collections.

It also includes funds for the state’s controversial voucher program, which has been declared unconstitutional by a state district judge and is set for review by the state Supreme Court on March 19.

But the key dispute that dominated the hearing focused on a proposed change in how the state funds about 82,000 special education students.

State Superintendent of Education John White, who initiated the new financing plan, said it would only amount to a few dollars per student initially.

White also said the proposal, which is aimed at improving the state’s 29 percent graduation rate for students with disabilities, includes considerable testimony from a wide range of advocates.

“We have taken a ton of input,” he said.

But dozens of witnesses took turns criticizing the planned change.

They repeatedly punctuated their views with frequent applause amid charges that the new funding method was hastily drawn and lacks enough real-world views.

“This is being railroaded,” said Lottie Beebe, a BESE member who lives in Breaux Bridge. “That is why we resent it.”

White, who is Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, said the proposed MFP maintains funding at current levels despite state financial problems.

He said voucher dollars are included because no final court ruling has been made.

Opponents included the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Michael Faulk, president of the superintendents’ group, said last weekend more than 50 of his colleagues discussed the proposed MFP.

Faulk said they concluded that it would permit more funding cuts for local districts and the special education plan is far more than a pilot, as White calls it.

Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA, said the MFP proposal fails to take into consideration a possible hike in the state sales tax as part of a tax overhaul, which he said would hurt the ability of local districts to renew or enact sales tax initiatives for schools.

The state now spends $313 million for its special education population, with aid based on the number of such students.

Under White’s plan, money would be spent based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated and academic performance.

However, the change for the 2013-14 school year would be limited to 10 percent of the state aid, which the superintendent said will allow educators to review how it is working next year.

Laureen Mayfield, who heads the Louisiana Special Education Association, disputed a key figure in the debate — the 29 percent graduation rate for special education students.

Mayfield said some other states with higher rates allow those students, unlike Louisiana, to earn a traditional high school diploma if they meet their individual education plan.

Walter Lee, the longest-serving member of BESE, urged colleagues to approve the MFP without changes in how students with disabilities are funded.

“I don’t believe we have ever had an issue where we had so many groups asking for more input than they have had,” Lee said. “That ought to tell us something.”

Lee’s motion died for lack of a second.

The vote technically represents approval from BESE’s Administration and Finance Committee.

However, since all 11 panel members voted — a sign of the issue’s high profile — the tally is tantamount to action by the full board.

Voting “yes” on the motion were Chas Roemer, of Baton Rouge; Connie Bradford, of Ruston; Jim Garvey, of Metairie; Judy Miranti, of New Orleans; Kira Orange-Jones, of New Orleans; Holly Boffy, of Youngsville; Stephen Waguespack, of Baton Rouge; and Jay Guillot, of Ruston.

Voting “no” were Beebe, Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, and Lee, of Mansfield.