$3.4B school funding plan gets final passage

By Melinda Deslatte

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 11:36 a.m. MDT

BATON ROUGE, La. — The Louisiana House gave final legislative passage Monday to a $3.4 billion elementary and secondary school spending plan, without reaching the number of votes usually needed to approve a bill.

House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, decided that since the multibillion-dollar spending plans were contained in a legislative resolution, they didn't require the 53 votes needed to pass a bill. Instead, Kleckley said the measure required support of a majority of those House members present and voting.

With that decision, the House's 51-49 vote on the last day of the legislative session gave the funding formula a final OK. A day earlier, the Senate passed the measure in a 24-15 vote, above the number needed to pass a bill.

The formula covers state spending for Louisiana's 70 public school districts and for other educational programs involving nearly 700,000 students.

The Jindal administration urged passage of the spending plans. They will fund the governor's newly created statewide voucher program that funnels tax dollars toward private and parochial school tuition for students who otherwise would attend low-performing public schools.

Rep. Steve Carter, who handled the legislation as chairman of the House Education Committee, said the formula matched a sweeping education overhaul pushed through the Legislature earlier this session by Gov. Bobby Jindal and supported by the House.

"It's time for us to do what's right for the students and parents of this state," Carter said.

Some opponents of the formula that usually pays for K-12 public schools called it unconstitutional because it contains funding for private schools and for college tuition. They also said the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which drafts the spending plans, overstepped its authority by creating new programs through the formula without legislative approval.

Other critics complained that they just learned one of the schools approved for the voucher program was an Islamic school. Still others objected to the spending plans as part of their continued opposition to the voucher program and the other education changes pressed by Jindal.

Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, head of the House Democratic caucus, said it was erroneous to declare the legislation could pass without 53 votes. And he said claims were false by the Jindal administration and BESE that rejection of the plans would require a special session.

"The games that we play in this body with the rules and the law need to come to an end. Either you have the votes to pass it or you don't," he said.

Rep. Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson, objected to including the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans in a list of schools approved by the education department to accept as many as 38 voucher students. Havard said he wouldn't support any spending plan that "will fund Islamic teaching."

"I won't go back home and explain to my people that I supported this," he said.

"It'll be the Church of Scientology next year," said Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin.

Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said the Islamic school withdrew its request to participate in the voucher program.

"They're not interested. The system works," he said.

The House previously voted to make changes to the formula. However, the state constitution limits the Legislature's ability to tweak the spending plans, and BESE President Penny Dastugue suggested any change from lawmakers would have the education board calling on Jindal for a special legislative session.

The formula divvies up dollars to districts based on the number and type of students they have and the individual districts' wealth. The proposal would keep the per-student cost flat for a fourth straight year, at $3,855.

The legislation includes plans for the state to start a new program in 2013-14, the Early High School Graduation Scholarship, which would give college tuition grants for students who graduate from high school early.

The voucher spending and a change to charter school funding in parishes under federal desegregation orders were expected to bring court challenges, possibly along with complaints about the vote threshold used for passage in the House.

"Know that it's going to be in court," said Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleonville, an opponent of the legislation.

Online:Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

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