By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – After a decade of stagnant financing or deep cuts, public education came out of Louisiana’s legislative session as one of the big winners, with new money for rising costs, pay raises and expansion plans.
State spending on higher education will grow by $47 million in the $30 billion-plus state operating budget that starts July 1. Early learning programs for children from birth to 4 years old will see up to $19 million in new state financing. K-12 public schools are getting $140 million in increased state dollars for the 2019-20 school year, largely tied to statewide pay raises for teachers and support workers.
“We kept our eye on the prize, the investment in our children,” Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said shortly after the legislative session ended June 6.
Republicans and Democrats embraced increased education spending, plans made possible by a seven-year tax deal struck last year that stabilized Louisiana’s budget and ended years of financial uncertainty.
This year’s budget debates were a far cry from prior legislative sessions, when the TOPS tuition program was on the chopping block, public K-12 schools were told to be happy with standstill funding, and early childhood education wasn’t even discussed.
Still, education leaders had to grapple with partisan politics, overcome House/Senate disputes, and compete with a long line of groups vying for increased financing before reaching their victory.
Early childhood education advocates had to make their case directly to lawmakers. Edwards didn’t initially propose new dollars for their programs, instead focusing on colleges and K-12 schools. The governor later backed boosted funding for early learning programs after a coalition of groups drew legislative and public attention.
“This is a huge win for families in our state and the reward for a unified voice from business, education, community, nonprofit and citizen advocates who spoke up loudly and forcibly,” Melanie Bronfin, policy director of the nonpartisan Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said in a statement applauding the session’s outcome.
Of $19 million in new state financing the early learning programs may receive, nearly $4 million only comes if Harrah’s New Orleans casino hits a certain revenue benchmark. Another $4 million replaces lost federal funding to keep current student levels in a pre-K program for at-risk 4-year-olds.
The remaining $11 million will pay for child care assistance for 1,450 children on a waiting list for a program helping low-income parents who are in school or working. The dollars also will increase rates paid through that program. Even with the new money, Bronfin said more than 4,000 children will remain on the waiting list.
After seeing some of the nation’s deepest public funding cuts over the last decade, Louisiana’s college programs will see a $47 million increase. Nicholls State University President Jay Clune credited Edwards: “He has been a game-changer for us.”
Nearly one-third of the increase ensures TOPS, which is growing to $311 million in the 2019-20 school year, will cover full tuition for all eligible students. More than $9 million will help campuses cover growing health and retirement costs.
The University of Louisiana at Monroe’s pharmacy school is getting $5 million to help with expenses as it undergoes accreditation review. LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center will get money to recruit faculty. A nursing program will receive new dollars, along with the Southern University System and the LSU and Southern AgCenters. LSU’s New Orleans medical school will receive more than $2 million to pay a new lease arrangement with the Louisiana Cancer Research Center.
The biggest education spending increase benefits elementary and secondary schools.
Roughly 57,000 public school teachers and other certificated personnel such as school counselors and librarians are getting a $1,000 raise from the state. Another 39,000 support workers such as bus drivers and cafeteria staff will receive $500 salary hikes. And school districts are splitting $39 million in new discretionary money for operations.
“It is a good legislative session when our state invests in our schools,” Superintendent of Education John White said in a statement.
The school financing plan fulfills a promise Edwards made to education unions backing his campaign for a second term. He’s touting the funding hikes in “teacher roundtables” around Louisiana.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte
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