LFT President: State budget fails education at all levels

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LFT President Steve Monaghan speaks to the news media about the looming crisis in public education if Governor Jindal's budget is adopted by the legislature.




This budget is a study in unfortunate choices. It puts public education at all levels on the wrong side of a clearly drawn line.

Looming budget cuts to public education, from kindergarten through college, threaten to derail Louisiana's educational progress and darken our state's economic future, according to Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan.

The proposed budget includes $219 million in cuts to colleges and universities, and nearly $200 million in cuts to elementary and secondary education.

"This budget is a study in unfortunate choices," Monaghan said. "It puts public education at all levels on the wrong side of a clearly drawn line."

In funding for K-12 schools, the LFT president said, "More money is earmarked for vouchers for religious schools, and princely sums flow to consultants and contractors of every ilk. However, minimal funding for Louisiana's public school systems is apparently not a priority of this administration. Otherwise, the budget would not shortchange education's Minimum Foundation Program by $64 million in critical support to local school systems.

"If our elected leaders listened to educators, they would question many of the established priorities and expenditures. For example, we're spending well over a hundred million dollars for assessment programs, including the development of forms, printing, distributing, and scoring standardized tests that provide teachers will little diagnostic value.

"On the other hand, an MFP that does not even cover inflationary costs will ultimately cut academic programs at the same time that we demand more rigor from our students," Monaghan said. "The truth is that we are failing our schools and our children.

"The administration's $219 million cut to higher education will slash important programs in every college, university, community college and technical school in the state, " Monaghan continued. "The permanent damage these cuts will cause to the economic development of the state is incalculable."

To critics who say the cuts are a necessity because of the national economic recession, Monaghan has two responses.

"First of all, history places our economic crisis in perspective. Over the past six years more than $2.4 billion worth of tax breaks were approved by the legislature," he said. "A broader, more diversified tax base has been dismantled, and once again we have become overly dependent on the petroleum industry as our revenue base."

Despite the crisis at hand, nearly 400 bills have been filed this session to provide tax credits, exemptions, incentives, deductions, exclusions, rebates, and refunds. On the other hand, less than a handful of revenue measures will be entertained.

Secondly, Monaghan said, it is important for leaders to make choices that will strengthen public education.
"Why are we talking about spending $6 million taxpayer dollars for vouchers, and cutting $6.3 million from a K-3 reading program for children in the very important early school years? It is poor public policy to provide a religious education for a few children in one part of the state, with funds that should be helping thousands all across the state," Monaghan said.

While fighting for funding will occupy much of the upcoming session, the LFT president said, the union plans to offer an education agenda that can point the way toward a better future for the state.

"We will continue to call for a bolder, broader approach to public education," Monaghan said. "Our schools must be viewed not as something separate and apart, but as vital centers of their respective communities."

Key to this bolder would be to ascertain the real cost of educating children in Louisiana, he said.

"Our schools are funded based on what the legislature provides, not on the real cost of an education," Monaghan said. "We have never determined the real costs to provide every child with a clean, safe school that is properly equipped, to have teachers who are experts in their fields, to have the appropriate learning materials and supplies, and to provide the support systems that schools require. We have yet to align our goals with the resources necessary to achieve them, and we will not secure "world class schools" until we do.

"We will ask lawmakers to do what numbers of other states have already done -- support and fund an empirical study to find the real cost of providing each child with a quality education," he said.

Monaghan also said the union wants lawmakers to rethink the state's school accountability plan.

"Currently, the standardized testing industry drives everything from the school calendars to curriculum in our schools," he said. "There are only six other states that place such high stakes on a standardized test."

The state is spending over $150 million on contracts with testing corporations to develop, print, distribute, collect and score the exams, he said.

"It's time that we ask hard questions about this expense" Monaghan asked. "Are we purchasing good diagnostic information for educators to use in their classroom to improve student achievement? Or, have we invested in a blurred snapshot that has contributed to a narrowing of curricula and has inadvertently promoted mediocrity."

"The teacher's expertise, common sense, and voice must be returned to the accountability process in regard to how it impacts students and schools," Monaghan said. "For instance, in Florida, the accountability process provides for safeguards for students. If teachers believe that the test is not reflective of a student's ability, then the teacher may submit a portfolio of the student's work for consideration."

In assessing our schools, Monaghan said, the LFT suggests including a "Learning Environment Index" to help identify problems and conditions known to affect student success. In addition to student achievement, teachers, site administrators, and parents would use the Learning Environment Index to trigger corrective action at the appropriate governance level:

  • The condition of the school facilities (structure, cleanliness, attractiveness) 
  • The safety and orderliness of the school (disruption and/or violence level)
  • The conditions of the external environment and the affect on student success
  • The school's resource level (availability of appropriate materials of instruction)
  • The teacher / staff retention at the school
  • The physical and emotional health of the student population (absenteeism, student mobility)

"By considering all these factors," Monaghan said, "we can get a truer picture of our schools and what can be done to improve them. We may also mobilize more citizens to become involved in the school improvement process."

Finally, the LFT president said that it is time for the state to play a larger role in building and maintaining the state's education infrastructure.

"School buildings have always been considered a local issue," he said, "but many school systems simply cannot afford the requirements of a modern education. The poorest systems have the most dilapidated schools, and need the most help to build and maintain adequate facilities."

According to one recent estimate, Louisiana's public schools need about $7 billion in renovations and rebuilding to provide students with adequate facilities.

"This is a major effort that requires state, local and national cooperation," Monaghan said. "During the 2008 session, the legislature unanimously passed the School Facilities Authority Act, which would have been a first necessary step to address this problem. Unfortunately, Governor Jindal vetoed this first step.

"Fortunately, the Governor may have a chance to reconsider this session since Senator Cheryl Gray and Representative Karen Carter-Petersen have filed similar legislation this year."

The Federation's agenda is ambitious, Monaghan acknowledged, but necessary for the state's future.

"There is no better time than now to start," he said.