Education and the Budget

The state House of Representatives took a novel approach to the budget this year, voting to pay off a large chunk of retirement system debt in lieu of some of the spending recommendations in the plan proposed by the governor. But now the budget is in the Senate where not everyone agrees debt reduction is the only big priority. That will set up one of those familiar clashes between chambers where the outcome probably will not be known until close to the end of the session.

The House spending plan, while complicated in execution, is actually pretty simple in concept. The state has a lot of debt in its pension systems. It also has a lot of one-time money to spend. So why not take as much of the non-recuring revenue as you can and use it to reduce the retirement system debt. That would in turn save state agencies and local school systems millions of dollars that would otherwise have gone to pensions and they can spend it pretty much any way they choose.

In many ways it makes perfect sense, but of course it’s more complicated than that. To accrue all the savings the House was looking for lawmakers pulled a significant level of funding from education. So that sets up another policy discussion. This one about priorities.

The House budget removes $196 million the governor recommended for teacher pay raises and another $52 million for early childhood education programs. About $57 million for higher education was also taken out, though House leaders say that money is effectively replaced by revenues that would accrue from savings because of paying off the retirement debt.

The reduction to early childhood education is particularly troubling. Last year lawmakers approved $192 million in non-recurring federal funding to serve more than 16,000 young children in early education and child care programs. The governor’s budget effectively reduced that funding to $52 million which would serve about 4,000 of those students.

In one way, the whole situation is problematic. It is unfortunate that we would offer services to 16,000 children for one year without the commitment to maintain those educational and developmental opportunities going forward. Retaining those services for a quarter of them is not ideal, but it is better than ending support for all of them, which the current budget does.

Louisiana, like most states, remains in the grips of a serious shortage of teachers. During this session law makers are moving legislation which, to some degree, lowers qualifications for classroom teachers in an effort to deal with those shortages. There are good reasons to consider these changes because schools are facing an acute need to hire the most qualified teachers they can find given their lack of other options.

But peer states faced with the same problems we are encountering are raising teacher pay, sometimes like Mississippi and Alabama, quite significantly. Compensation is not the only reason fewer young people are not entering the teaching profession, but it is certainly one of them. Louisiana should do whatever it can to value its educators and send the message that hiring the best teachers to educate our children is worth it.

House members say under their plan the savings in pension costs local school boards will realize could go to raise teacher pay. But the problem there is that those savings don’t accrue equally among districts. Many charter schools would see no savings because they don’t participate in the state retirement system. And school boards faced with other needs might not choose to fund the raises.

At the end of the day, the budget decisions before the Legislature revolve around the same things they always do. Priorities. There are technical complications around the state’s constitutional spending cap and that will continue to get more attention as the session winds down, especially now that the Revenue Estimating Conference has recognized hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenues for this year and beyond. But history tells us those issues can be worked out if there is the will to do it.

No one’s views about priorities should be minimized and there are reasonable arguments for everything that is being proposed. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that U.S. News and World Report just released its latest state rankings and Louisiana comes in at 50th. Again.

One bright spot is that we improved in our education rankings. That’s good news, but it’s not enough. It is hard to imagine Louisiana moving far off of 50th without a continued focus and investment in education. And it’s hard to think we will do that without getting the best teachers in the classroom and making sure our youngest children are ready for school.

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