- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The state’s top school board is considering changes to the way it divvies up $3.5 billion in annual funding for public schools, embracing ideas Tuesday that would increase spending on technical training and special education.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education won’t draft its final school funding formula proposal until March. But nearly all members of the board backed recommendations for tweaks from a task force that spent four months reviewing the current formula.

“The next step is really to work out the mechanics,” said board member Jay Guillot, who also chaired the Minimum Foundation Program task force.

The task force suggested increased spending on technical courses and special education students, an increased cost of about $15 million. It also suggested an inflationary boost, a move that would roll a one-time, $69 million increase that lawmakers approved this year into the formula and continue it each year.

The ideas will be incorporated into the 2014-15 financing plan devised by BESE and submitted to lawmakers for consideration in the legislative session that begins in March, to pay for the state’s 70 school districts.

Lawmakers can only approve or reject the formula submitted each year by BESE. They cannot change it.

The task force suggestions being used to craft next year’s formula don’t go as far as teacher unions and special education advocates would like.

Parents and advocates for special needs students want more overall restructuring for how the state pays for special education.

Leaders of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Educators want a slice of the inflationary increase to be earmarked to pay raises for teachers and school employees, saying that pay has been frozen in many systems for five years.

Also, the union leaders object to using money from the public school funding formula to pay for the Course Choice program, which lets students take online course offerings, academic courses and skills training taught mainly by private organizations and universities.

The Louisiana Supreme Court struck down a previous attempt to pay for Course Choice through the formula. The task force recommended paying for Course Choice through the school systems and requiring a local school counselor and principal to determine whether students can take the outside classes.

“I believe another funding source would be the constitutional thing to do,” said LAE President Debbie Meaux.

Carolyn Hill of Baton Rouge was the only BESE member on Tuesday to oppose acceptance of the task force recommendations. Two other board members were absent.

In addition to the task force recommendations, others asked the board members to consider paying for a pre-kindergarten program for at-risk children through the public school funding formula, to give the program a sustained, secure source of financing.

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