Legislative Session Included Significant Focus on Education

It’s fair to say the legislative session that just ended had more than its share of twists and turns. Legislation on property insurance passed. The constitutional convention didn’t. Lawmakers decided to forgo putting more than $700 million in a special savings account to spend it instead on a variety of major projects. And some issues no one ever saw coming – efforts to weaken public record laws and increase the appointing powers of the governor – generated their fair share of controversy. But in many ways, it was also a significant session for education.

The major disappointments on that front were budgetary. Last year’s $2,000 teacher stipend was carried over for another year, but it’s still not a permanent pay raise. And despite expectations that lawmakers would maintain the $24 million they had been spending on family supports for early childhood education, the funding was cut by $9 million. That was particularly discouraging given the fact that it represents a relatively small amount of money in the scheme of the full budget.

And once again, the Legislature failed to pass an updated version of the MFP, the formula that funds public schools in Louisiana. The MFP, which BESE approved and submitted to lawmakers, did not include an increase in the per-pupil amount allocated to schools. But it did propose a modest overall increase to include funding extra pay for high-performing teachers and those teaching high-demand courses, in-school tutoring, and work-based learning experiences.

Still, there were a number of policy accomplishments, both large and small, that add up to a significant session for education.

School Choice

One of the biggest bills of the entire session (SB 313) dealt with creating special Education Savings Accounts for families that would allow them to use public dollars to send their children to private schools. The original ESA bill was both expansive and expensive. The version that finally passed was reined in quite a bit. It placed more emphasis on students with special needs and families with low-to-moderate incomes, removed a three-year timeline for phase-in, and left it up to BESE to develop many of the rules for the program and how much families would receive if the Legislature decides to appropriate funding for the program in the future

Another education choice bill (SB 38) removed some obstacles for families seeking access to courses not available in their particular school and broadened the choices that would be available to them.

Charter Schools

For backers of charter schools there were several major wins this session. SB 350 updated Louisiana’s 30-year-old charter school law, both modernizing it and clarifying the autonomies that are at the heart of the charter school model.

Another bill (SB 316) extended the initial authorization period for new charters and gave them additional time to demonstrate progress before their first review. HB 78 streamlined the approval process for charter schools partnering with private-sector companies to help serve their employees. It will also make it easier for them to enroll students on a regional basis instead of from just one school district.

Tutoring & Learning Interventions

In recent years, Louisiana has seen notable improvements in early reading proficiency because of expanded tutoring, screenings, use of high-quality curricula, and targeted interventions. Three bills (HB 244, HB 267, and SB 508) seek to build on those efforts by expanding many of those same strategies to include early math. All of these programs are extremely promising, though sustainable funding remains an issue.

Curriculum and Instruction

In recent years, schools everywhere have tried to place a greater emphasis on STEM instruction, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math. HB 264 takes another step in that direction by requiring that all students earn one credit in computer science to graduate from high school, regardless of their career path.

Another issue facing teachers and their instructional time is the proliferation of additional courses the Legislature has mandated that they teach on top of what might be considered “normal” course requirements. Over the years that list has grown to include things such as Internet safety, adoption awareness, parenting, organ donation, water safety and numerous others.

While perhaps worthy additions to the classroom, they also take up a great deal of instructional time for students and training time for teachers. HB 320 repeals many of those legislative mandates, authorizing BESE to evaluate them and develop rules on which ones should be continued, how often they should be taught, and in what grades.

In order to relieve some of the burdens mandates like these have added to classroom teachers over the years, HB 647 would not allow any new instructional requirements to take effect unless an existing instructional requirement of about the same time length is removed.

Higher Education

This was another significant session for higher education, especially in terms of addressing some of the cost issues that strain institutional budgets.

HB 862 will allow higher education institutions to make limited adjustments in tuition for high-cost undergraduate courses such as engineering, architecture, electrical training, etc. It also allows for adjustments in mandatory fees at colleges, but limits all increases to no more than 10% over a two-year period. These high-cost programs tend to be in high-demand fields that also pay higher salaries.

Three years ago, the Legislature created the M.J. Foster Promise Award program to provide financial aid to adults for education and training in specific high-demand fields. HB 728 would expand eligibility to that program by lowering the age to qualify from 21 to 17 over a three-year period. Another bill (SB 272) increases the amount that can be appropriated to the program from $10.5 to $40 million.

According to testimony this session, more than 70% of the state buildings in Louisiana are on college and university campuses and together they account for a $2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance on buildings, major equipment, and other facilities. Complicating matters is the fact that addressing these major capital needs is only growing more expensive.

HB 940 creates a new mechanism to facilitate the sale of bonds to address the critical deferred maintenance needs of buildings and facilities on the state’s higher education campuses.

There are still future details to be worked out on the source of financing, but this complements the approval of $75 million the Legislature is directing to higher education maintenance needs this year from corporate taxes that would have otherwise gone into a special savings account.

So, what does this session say about education in Louisiana? It seems to send some mixed messages. The cut to early childhood education and the inability to make a teacher pay stipend into a permanent pay raise were disappointing. So was the last-minute passage of HB 762 that runs counter to the new accountability system BESE is considering and diminishes our ability to assess how high school students are performing in core subjects.

But lawmakers did address many of the right things when it comes to policy. The focus on students at early ages is critically important and if we can help those struggling with reading and math achieve greater proficiencies, the odds are better that they will be successful in school and in life.

But some of these require funding to fully implement and that means setting priorities. Investment in education is the best bet we can make to improve the future of our state. We would have preferred to see more of that investment in K-12 education, but it is our hope that the priority is so high and some of the efforts proposed this session are so well targeted that the need to support them going forward will be self-evident.

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