By Danielle Dreilinger
The task force examining Louisiana’s $3.5 billion public school funding plan once again bogged down Wednesday over the complex challenge of paying for special education. By the end of the three-hour meeting, members weren’t certain they would change anything at all.
The Minimum Foundation Program, or MFP, sets the base cost of educating a child, then adds more for certain needs such as special education. The current base cost is about $5,200 per student throughout the state, but for a child in special education, local school systems get the base amount plus an extra 150 percent. This year, special education costs $320 million, Education Superintendent John White said, for 82,000 students.
School systems receive that money as a block grant and spend more or less on individual students as needed. But a 2012 legislative resolution, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, stated that a flat rate for special education “regardless of the cost or level of services actually provided to the student … is inherently inequitable.” It directed the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s task force to find a better way.
The Education Department has floated several plans to adjust the payout to account for the widely disparate cost of serving different children but has never gained consensus from special education advocates and lawmakers on how to do it.
And not covered at all in the funding formula are extra payments for “Response to Intervention” services, help given to students who are struggling to learn but need not be placed in special education. “The costs are astronomical, and we don’t have any way of getting those costs paid,” said Charles Michel of the Louisiana Association of Special Education Administrators.
As a new possible alternative, White presented the method used by the Recovery School District’s New Orleans charter schools. They schools split up the pot of money in five tiers according to a matrix that takes into account both the type of disability and the number of minutes each child gets help.
Ben Kleban, chief executive of New Orleans College Prep, said this approach does a much better job of keeping budgets balanced. “We went from a machete to a steak knife,” he said, though adding, “I don’t have a scalpel yet.”
But there was a marked resistance to bringing that to a state level and changing the overall formula. Several attendees at the task force meeting said neither disability type, minutes of help, nor the two together could accurately guarantee how much it costs to educate a given child.
In fact, Doris Voitier, the St. Bernard Parish school system’s chief executive and president of the state superintendents association, disagreed with Claitor’s initial contention. “I think it’s as equitable a distribution as any other weight or part of the MFP,” she said.
White promised system-by-system analyses and projections to see whether anything was actually broken in special education funding. A key question – “an elephant in the living room,” he said – was whether entire systems are receiving too much or too little money from the state based on the breakdown of their special education population.
Several parents with the advocacy group LaTEACH said afterwards they just wanted to ensure each child got what he or she needed. “The money should follow the child based on the IEP,” said St. Tammany mother Liz Gary, referring to individual education plan for each special education student. “I think there needs to be a closer look at the individual child.” She wasn’t sure how that would be scaled up to the state level, however.
If her child needed less-expensive help, said Darla Louviere of New Iberia, the extra money should go “wherever it’s needed. I mean, I’m not going to hog it all.”
The task force also rehashed the question of whether it should reassess the actual minimum cost of educating a child in Louisiana. Scott Richard, director of the state school boards association, said a 2014 legislative resolution directed the task force to do just that. White said there is no point, given that the Legislature sets the education budget based on revenue.
Steve Monaghan, head of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, was somewhat resigned. “I’ll pick up the prayer books after this. Church is out, I understand,” he said. “But this is a conversation we’ve been dodging for a long time, and I guess we’ll continue to dodge it.”
The task force is scheduled to meet monthly through the fall. It will consider preschool funding, then how the state counts students, and make final recommendations in December.
More than 20 task force members attended. The number did not include Jane Smith, a BESE member who is on the task force and has been at odds with White over the Common Core academic standards.
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CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, Darla Louviere’s remarks were misattributed to Liz Gary.