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John White: $3.4 billion MFP may be DOA

Louisiana Federation of Teachers
BESE Report
March, 2017

John White: $3.4 billion MFP may be DOA

Even as the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a $3.4 billion funding formula for the state’s public schools in the coming year, Superintendent of Education John White cautioned that the plan will probably not win legislative approval.

In light of the state’s budget crisis, the plan presented to BESE essentially froze per-pupil spending for the 2017-18 school year. About $18 million in new spending is included for higher-need students and for dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college credit.

Another $18 million is in the formula to pay for an expected increase in student enrollment.

The formula includes a base per-pupil amount, with weights added to meet student needs and to adjust for local funding efforts. The legislature can either approve or reject the formula, but cannot change it.

If it is rejected, BESE may either propose a new plan or allow the MFP to revert to the previous year’s formula.

Discussion of the MFP included the always controversial topic of teacher retirement. Opponents of our state’s defined benefit pension system say that it is too costly, with system debt, or unfunded accrued liability, approaching nearly 30% of spending.

But BESE Member Doris Voitier, who was appointed to the board by Gov. John Bel Edwards, pointed out that the UAL exists because the legislature never funded the retirement systems properly. Without that debt, she said, the retirement system would cost less than enrolling employees in Social Security.

Research shows that defined benefit plans provide a targeted level of retirement income at a lower cost than most other retirement plans. A recent analysis of state public pension plans by the Pew Charitable Trust and Governing magazine showed that Louisiana’s pension plans, including its teacher retirement system, are among the top five plans in the best shape across the country. 

Science standards vote includes nod to creationism

BESE gave preliminary approval to the state’s 20-year-old standards for teaching science, but not before a provision was added that some see as opening the door to teaching creationism to explain how life arose and changed.

Debate over the new standards centered on an argument that has raged since Louisiana’s Science Education Act was passed in 2008. The act called for allowing a wide range of supplemental teaching material in classrooms. It was widely seen as a way for religious and cultural conservatives to challenge prevailing scientific thought on issues like evolution and climate change.

Opponents of the new standards, including Louisiana Family Forum president Gene Mills and State Rep. Beryl Amedee, said that non-evolutionary explanations for the rise of species are ignored in the standards, while evolution is mentioned 25 times.

Members of the commission that wrote the standards pointed out that scientific theories are not just guesses, but are based on years of research and peer reviewed experiments. No theory other than evolution can scientifically explain the diversity of life on our planet, they said.

District 7 BESE Member Kathy Edmonston suggested including a reference to the 2008 act in the rules that will accompany the new standards. Her motion was approved on a 7-2 vote of BESE’s Academic Goals committee, which them approved the new standards 9-0. It was unanimously okayed by the full board.

Superintendent of Education John White said that the standards will be phased in. The 2017-18 school year will include teacher training and field testing, with full implementation in the 2018-19 school year.

Combining state and local strategies touted for Caddo Parish

By “combining state and local strategies,” it may be possible to avoid a state takeover of four schools in Caddo Parish, according to a discussion held in BESE’s School Innovation and Turnaround Committee.

As the state education department and Caddo School Board officials craft a new memorandum of understanding that could keep the schools under local control, the president of Red River United, an LFT affiliate, urged all parties to “pray that when you lay your head on the pillow tonight that you can say, this is all about the boys and girls in public schools.”

RRU President Jackie Lansdale said that the parish has a problem recruiting more certified teachers, paying them well and giving them the support they need. That, she said, would go a long way toward solving the district’s problems.

The tussle between the state and school board can become a sort of power grab that ignores the needs of children, she said.

State Superintendent of Education John White said that an existing MOU with the local school board is set to expire soon. He said that he hopes ongoing discussions with can create a new agreement that will “produce a plan that is a hallmark and example, not just for the rest of the state, but for the rest of the country.”

White said that he believes some challenged schools in the system, including the four that are eligible for state seizure, have suffered because of an inequitable distribution of resources. There has been a large turnover of staff, with inexperienced and lower-paid teachers assigned to low-achieving schools.

In other business, the committee put off until April a decision on revoking the charter of Bogalusa’s Northshore Charter School. The school has consistently received an “F” grade on its state report card, but since the few other options in the city are also low-rated, BESE is facing a dilemma.

One option, he said, would be for the city school board to become the authorizer for the school’s charter.

Student fee survey received by BESE

With little discussion, BESE received a report critical of the student fees charged by local school districts.

The report urged local school systems to use “extreme caution” in establishing fees, deciding how to spend the money, and what to do if students cannot afford them.

The report, which was mandated by a 2016 legislative resolution, concluded that “local school governing authorities should regularly monitor the use of fees to ensure that they are appropriate, that local revenue is being used for its intended purpose and that waivers to economically disadvantaged students are available, are applied for by the most at-risk students and being approved in a consistent manner.”

Virtually all local school systems responded to the survey. All said they impose some student fees, but only about half of them said there is a set policy guiding the imposition of fees.

Charges included fees for phys ed uniforms, school supplies, ID badges, parking, lockers, technology, registration and home room. Most said they charge for extracurricular activities. Costs for various fees ranged from $95 for school supplies to $10 for lockers.

BESE postpones charter school special needs report until March 29

Fewer than half of Louisiana’s public charter schools met legal requirements for providing services to special needs students, according to a report prepared for BESE by the Department of Education.

Action on the report’s findings was deferred until a March 29 special BESE meeting after members complained that they only received the 134 page document on the morning of the board’s School Innovation and Turnaround Committee.

It is an issue that has been simmering in the special needs community for years. Advocates have long complained that many charter schools do not meet requirements to enroll the correct percentages of students who are considered at-risk or special needs.

In response, the legislature adopted Act 467 in 2015. The law required charter schools to enroll a certain percentage of students considered to be at-risk and a certain percentage of students with disabilities, not including gifted and talented.

The law and policy set out different requirements for schools depending on their charter type. Act 467 did not mandate any enrollment requirements for traditional public schools operated by local school boards. However, BESE Bulletin 126 requires that enrollment percentages for these student populations are also reported publicly every year.

The report presented to BESE this week showed that most charter schools enrolled between 74% and 81% of the required at-risk students in 2015-16.

Charter school enrollment of special needs students ranged between 42% and 49% of the requirement, however. On average, 44% of charter schools met the students with disabilities requirement in 2015-16.

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