On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a supplemental spending bill that contains a new set of budget cuts to education that are at best, irresponsible. These actions by the House should be particularly disturbing to those who care anything about education in our state.
It came in the debate over HB 122, a bill designed to make deeper cuts in the state budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The end result is that the legislation makes a total cut of 85 percent to the Department of Education’s remaining cash on hand for the current fiscal year. If that cut is actually made, this will be disastrous for Louisiana students.
The Department of Education has roughly $60.5 million left in the current fiscal year to pay all of its remaining expenses. The total proposed mid-year cut, including those added by HB 122, total $52 million. The net effect is that there are only two areas left in the department’s budget that can cover the size of that cut and both would be wiped out: 1) continued reimbursements to about 300 private schools throughout the state for activities required by law and payments that allow low-income students to attend those schools through Louisiana’s scholarship program, and 2) mandated student testing for the current school year.
The issue with testing is particularly troubling. State law requires that students in grades 3-11 be tested as part of Louisiana’s School Accountability System. That is the only measure we have to know how our students, schools and districts are performing and whether they are making academic progress. By making a deliberate and targeted cut of this magnitude at this time, lawmakers are effectively dismantling critical pieces of important education reforms that have yielded significant progress for students over the last 20 years.
At the same time they are playing into the hands of many in the education establishment who have worked for years to break down various aspects of Louisiana’s School Accountability System and hide from parents and the public the true performance of Louisiana students. And it flies directly in the face of those who say they want to teach our children to high academic standards, measure their performance, and use that information to help them succeed.
On top of that, at a time when we are already experiencing severe budget constraints, the failure to administer tests is a violation of federal law that puts into jeopardy approximately $500 million in federal revenues that flow directly into our schools. A large portion of those dollars are targeted to help students in high-poverty schools and those with special needs. It seems incomprehensible that any legislator would want to put any of those revenues at risk.
As for the scholarship program, the cut there is more of the “smoke and mirrors” game that many in the Legislature accused the prior administration of using. Scholarship dollars go directly to pay participating students’ tuition in non-public schools. These children are from low-income households who could never afford the tuition without the scholarship.
Taking away their scholarships in the middle of the second semester of the school year means they will have to leave their school, enroll in a public school and totally disrupt their education. It is disheartening to think the House would agree to a policy like that which would have such a negative impact on thousands of children. But beyond that, it saves no money. When those students enroll in a public school, the state will still have to pay that school to educate those children. It’s a “cut” that harms students, but it doesn’t save money.
Finally, there has been a lot of talk during this short legislative session of setting priorities and spending the few state dollars we have left on the things that are most important. Perhaps, because time is running short, many legislators didn’t fully understand what they were doing in making these particular cuts. But when money is tight, priorities are important and from CABL’s perspective, the education of our children should be one of the priorities at the very top of our list.