Public school aid plan fails

A $3.5 billion spending plan for public schools was rejected by a state Senate committee Tuesday, which will likely kill the measure for the session.

The proposal, Senate Concurrent Resolution 23, was denounced primarily for proposed changes in how the state would change funding for special education students.

After about 90 minutes of criticism, a move to shelve the measure won approval without objection in the Senate Education Committee.

The action means that, unless there is a sudden change, the state will return to its 2011-12 public school funding package to aid schools for the 2013-14 school year, with no changes to special education aid.

Parents and students are not likely to notice changes.

However, the vote also means that the state will have to come up with an additional $30 million, which is significant in a session where extra state dollars are relatively scarce.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, made the motion to reject the plan.

“I believe procedurally and substantively this is defective,” Claitor told the panel. “There is work yet to be done.”

The legislation represents aid that goes through a complex formula — it is called the Minimum Foundation Program — and is then parceled out for roughly 700,000 public school students.

The key issue that made this one controversial was a provision that would change the way the state supports about 82,000 special education students.

Under the proposal, 10 percent of the money would be based on a student’s disability, where and how the student is educated, and academic performance.

State Superintendent of Education John White has said for months that the change would help improve Louisiana’s 29 percent graduation rate for special education students.

Opponents questioned the value of the overhaul.

They said that, at the least, it should be piloted in select school districts rather than taking effect statewide.

“I think it is best if we take a step back,” said Michael Faulk, president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Central school system.

Cindy Arceneaux, co-chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Panel, said funding is not the key issue in improving how special education students fare.

“That’s not what drives it,” Arceneaux said.

Other opponents said that, while touted as a pilot project, the change in how much of the aid is allocated would expand quickly, with negative consequences.

White said after the vote that he has no regrets about his push for special education changes, which has sparked controversy for months,

“Clearly it is not an issue anyone can ignore when you have a 29 percent graduation rate,” he said.

White said that, if the proposed 2013-14 aid plan is shelved for good, the state has to come up with $30 million, in part because it will have to resume full funding for certain charter and other schools.

That was the policy in the 2011-12 school plan, which would take effect on July 1.

In addition, $12 million of the $30 million stems from dollars owed by the state to local school districts as part of the costs of vouchers before the state Supreme Court ruled the funding method was unconstitutional.

The state cannot use its 2012-13 school aid because the court also said it was approved illegally.

Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said before the vote it would be a mistake to reject the resolution and rely on 2011-12 funding levels.

“We passed this MFP because we think it is better,” he said of the 2013-14 proposal spelled out in SCR23. “We have a great deal of room for improvement in this state.”

White said that, if the 2011-12 school aid plan is used, it will cost the state about $3.5 billion.

That measure would also essentially freeze spending per student for the fifth consecutive year.

The committee’s action is unusual.

In the past, any problems with the MFP in the Legislture usually prompted another BESE meeting, and another plan being sent to House and Senate members before final approval.

The Legislature can only approve or reject the proposal but cannot change it.

Any bid to fund vouchers for the 2013-14 school year will play out in other legislation.