Legislature Sends Discouraging Message on Education

The House of Representatives passed its version of the budget last week, and it included some discouraging cuts for teachers and early childhood education. While the prospects are good that most of that funding will be restored by the Senate, it is unfortunate that the Legislature is sending a disturbing message about the state’s support for education.

It’s one of the strange ironies at the Capitol that lawmakers all agree on the importance of education, and yet often don’t seem to fund it as the priority they say it is.

A case in point is the current version of the state budget. House members, trying to balance various funding needs, voted to cut $24 million for early childhood education that was proposed in the governor’s budget. The impact is tangible. It would mean that almost 2,000 children from birth to age three would be ineligible for assistance to participate in high-quality early education programs.

Lawmakers also muddied the waters on the issue of teacher pay. Last year, they balked at giving teachers a $2,000 pay raise and voted instead to make it a one-time stipend with the promise that they would work to make it permanent. But the governor’s budget once again proposed to fund it as a stipend, and then the House reduced it to an average of just less than $1,700.

All of this sends a bad message.

Lawmakers completed a special legislative session in February focused on public safety. There’s no question Louisiana has a serious problem with crime, but all the data continues to show that the number one deterrent to crime is education.

This is particularly true for early education. The evidence shows that children who show up in kindergarten ready to learn and have mastered reading by third grade go on to have far better social outcomes than those without quality early learning experiences.

As for teachers, while there have been some positive developments in growing the educator workforce and retaining teachers in the classroom, the mixed signals the Legislature is sending over teacher pay aren’t helpful. Pay is not the primary reason why people choose to become teachers, but it is certainly a factor, especially in light of reports that show teacher pay in Louisiana is less than in many other Southern states.

To be sure, there are some positive things happening at the Legislature in terms of education. The House passed a new funding formula for public schools that includes a component to provide additional pay for teachers in high-need areas. It also targets funds for tutoring programs and apprenticeships for high school students. Other bills seek to expand interventions for students struggling in math.

While these are positive developments, we cannot lose sight of the fact even great initiatives still require good teachers and all of the interventions we are implementing become less necessary when students begin school with a strong foundation of early learning.

We are hopeful that the Senate will restore the cuts in these critical areas, but we must also acknowledge this will still be a band-aid. The teacher pay raise needs to be permanent and the restoration of the early childhood funding still leaves thousands of children on a waiting list.

The potential fiscal cliff coming next year won’t make this any easier, but if we say we want to make Louisiana better, we know education is the key. We shouldn’t be sending messages that might suggest otherwise.

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