Legislative sessions come and go but only occasionally do you have meetings of the Legislature that are truly memorable. This was one of them.
No matter what else did or didn’t happen, the 2012 legislative session will be remembered for the enactment of a host of significant education reforms. Over the course of just a three-month period, the Legislature approved policy changes that will impact public education in Louisiana for years to come. These reforms will not be forgotten.
The good news is that the passage of major education reform isn’t anything new for the state. It actually marks what might be seen as the third wave of significant education reform that CABL has been a part of over the last decade-and-a-half. It began in the late 1990s with the creation of the state’s highly-regarded School Accountability System and later grew to include the development of the state’s Recovery School District and the widespread expansion of charter schools in New Orleans.
These latest reforms build on the successes of those. They give parents more education options for their children and give school leaders more tools to help improve student performance. Among other things this legislation provides in significant ways for:
- Reform of teacher tenure laws
- Merit pay for highly effective teachers
- Increased school choice opportunities
- Expansion of charter schools
- School board reform and accountability
- Accountability in early childhood education programs
In addition to those items that CABL supported as part of the governor’s education package, we also helped enact legislation to: 1) eliminate tenure for all newly-hired school bus drivers and 2) place an item on the November ballot giving local voters the option of placing term limits on their school board members.
When you look at all of those items in their totality and consider the scope of what they accomplish, there’s little question that the 2012 legislative session was one of the most significant for public education reform in the state’s history. We now hope state and local education leaders will move expeditiously, but prudently, to implement these reforms in ways that will have a meaningful impact for the hundreds of thousands of children who’ve been waiting for them.
In terms of just plain energy, discussions about the budget consumed a lot of it this legislative session. That was the case for a couple of reasons. For one thing, after the session began, lawmakers learned that revenue estimates were falling short of expectations and they would have to trim an already reduced budget by some $300 million for the coming year and more than $200 million in the current fiscal year which ends June 30.
That collided with a clear philosophical divide that’s been growing between the House and the Senate about whether it was okay to use a limited amount of non-recurring revenues to help plug the budget hole and mitigate some of the cuts to higher education and health care. That created a major bone of contention.
So here’s what happened. The House Appropriations Committee, responding to that unexpected loss of revenues, made additional cuts to the original Jindal administration budget –using some non-recurring dollars – and sent it to the full House for consideration. A group of House members, calling themselves “fiscal hawks,” succeeded in removing all of those one-time dollars from the budget, precipitating an additional cut of about $268 million, and sent it to the Senate.
Senators couldn’t quite swallow that significantly higher level of cuts, which included a hit to higher education of about $225 million. In response, they put back those one-time dollars, eliminated those extra cuts, and sent the budget back to the House. With time running out, the House conceded to the Senate changes and the budget was passed. It still includes a significant amount of cuts in state spending, though not at the cataclysmic levels that some had suggested. As for the shortfall in the current fiscal year, that was mostly filled with cash from the state’s “rainy day” fund.
In the end, CABL believes that while the budget battles got contentious this year, the session ended with the right outcome. Higher education simply could not have sustained the level of cuts originally proposed while providing the services we want and expect for our students. At the same time, we believe the discussion about the use of one-time money is an appropriate one. While that issue was not resolved during this year’s legislative session, we believe the conversation will continue in the months ahead and hopefully lead to a common sense agreement about the use of these dollars.
From CABL’s perspective this year’s session was a difficult one for higher education, and that’s unfortunate. Funding for post-secondary education in Louisiana remains a major concern.
You can look at it in different ways, but ostensibly when the session began, the governor’s original budget had higher education more-or-less protected. Things worsened a bit as the budget moved through the legislative process and a growing revenue shortfall forced the House Appropriations Committee to make $71 million in cuts to colleges to keep the budget in balance.
Then, the full House took it even further. When the “fiscal hawks” removed all the one-time revenues from the budget, the reduction to higher education had ballooned to $225 million resulting in a cut to most institutions and systems in the neighborhood of 30%. By the time the Senate finished its work that cut had been reduced to about $66 million and that’s where it stayed. But you can see the point. When cuts are made, they invariably hit higher education in a disproportionate way.
As an aside, it wasn’t widely recognized but in addition to that cut for next year, higher education is also facing a reduction of $25 million during the current fiscal year which must be made between now and June 30. That’s because when the “rainy day” fund was tapped to make up for the current year shortfall, higher education was not included. One can only speculate on the reasons for that, but clearly some disconnect remains between higher education and those who control the purse strings.
The budget wasn’t the only issue in higher education this year, but it’s about the only one that saw any real change. Last year, a legislatively created commission looking at governance and other issues in higher education met for several months and issued 21 recommendations for improving post-secondary education in Louisiana. Legislation was filed addressing seven of those recommendations dealing with issues such as the governance structure for higher education, tuition policy, TOPS, shortening the time to graduation and making it easier for students to transfer from one institution to another. Only bills addressing the last two passed.
In addition there was a major push, which CABL supported, to merge LSU-Shreveport and Louisiana Tech in northwest Louisiana. That failed, though two mergers involving technical and community colleges were approved as was the creation of a new community college in central Louisiana.
From CABL’s perspective, post-secondary education in Louisiana may well be reaching a tipping point. For four years, higher education systems and institutions have had to absorb significant budget cuts. Though the cuts have never been as devastating as they could have been, the sheer regularity of them is taking its toll.
With a citizenry that is undereducated and a global economy where knowledge is the only reliable ticket to prosperity, Louisiana must do better. We need quality research institutions that can fuel future economic development, good professional schools, and institutions of all varieties that can prepare students for the workforce and meaningful careers. Today that vision is being threatened.
At some point our state leaders must come to grips with the question of what we want out of higher education and take the necessary steps through resources or restructuring to achieve that goal. We have been talking about that for the last few years at least. Now it’s becoming crystal clear that this is an issue that can no longer wait to be resolved.
CABL Legislation of Interest
Throughout the session CABL tracked and was involved in a number of pieces of legislation. Here’s a list of how those bills fared.
Teacher Tenure and Local Flexibility: Restructuring of teacher tenure laws for the future and more control and accountability of local school administration shifted from the school boards to the superintendents and principals. PASSED
School Choice and Parental Options: Creates a scholarship program for students in certain poor-performing districts and streamlines the charter process and creates additional ways for charter creation and expansion. PASSED
Early Childhood Education: Creates an early childhood program accountability system and aligns early education networks into a more cohesive system. PASSED
Bus Driver Tenure: Eliminates tenure for bus drivers in the future. Current bus drivers do not lose tenure. PASSED
School Board Term Limits: Allows for a local option vote to set term limits for school board members at 3 terms (12 years). PASSED
Southeast Baton Rouge Community School District: Allows for a vote to determine the creation of an independent school system in Southeast Baton Rouge. FAILED
Independent School Systems: Changes the process for creating new independent school districts by requiring only a local vote for approval without the statewide vote that is currently mandated. FAILED
School Lunch Programs: Deletes prohibition on the disbursement of state appropriated funds for the support of any privately provided for profit nutrition program administered by the state Department of Education. FAILED
College Credit and Transfer: Establishes a statewide common course numbering system to facilitate the transfer of students and course credits between and among secondary and post-secondary educational institutions. PASSED
Common Graduation Standards: Establishes a standard base of 120 hours for college graduation with exceptions for certain technical and specialty degrees. PASSED
Post-Secondary Education Funding: Requires management boards of post-secondary institutions to allocate funds appropriated according to the funding formula established by the Board of Regents. FAILED
Higher Education Governance: Constitutional amendment that would have clarified the powers and duties of the public post-secondary education management boards and the Board of Regents. FAILED
Louisiana Tech/LSU-S Merger: Allows for the merger of Louisiana Tech and LSU-Shreveport. FAILED
Student Tuition and Fees: Originally, would have given authority to public post-secondary education management boards to increase tuition and mandatory fee amounts without Legislative approval. It was altered to authorize management boards to institute a “stabilization fee” to offset budget cuts and would not be part of TOPS. FAILED
TOPS Scholarship Program: Decouples TOPS and tuition so that tuition increases would not necessarily lead to increased state costs for TOPS. FAILED
Ethics Board Appeals: Under certain conditions, allows the Board of Ethics to appeal decisions of the Ethics Adjudicatory Board. and also clarifies that the Board of Ethics has authority. PASSED
Ethics Board Authority/Powers: Clarifies the timeframe in which the Ethics Board must act on a complaint and file charges. Further, it also clarifies that the Board of Ethics may assess and collect penalties and fees in connection with violations of Campaign Finance laws. PASSED
Final Average Compensation: Increases the final average compensation on which one’s retirement would be based from three years to five years. FAILED
Employee Contribution Rate: Increases the employee contribution rate for some members of the state employee and the teachers’ retirement systems. FAILED
Retirement Age: Increases the retirement age for some members the state employee and the teachers’ retirement systems. FAILED
Cash Balance Retirement Plan: Creates a new state retirement system for new hires that will create retirement accounts for employees similar to a 401(k); however, the accounts are guaranteed against investment losses. PASSED
Retirement Boards: Adds the Commissioner of Administration to the boards of all state retirement systems. PASSED
Retirement Boards: Merges the Louisiana School Employees' Retirement System into the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana. FAILED