Louisiana’s future growth and prosperity depends on its ability to educate its citizens. Our state’s K-12 schools and colleges are at the forefront of efforts to provide opportunities for our children, and to prepare the next generation of workers for the challenges they’ll face in the 21st Century economy. But in recent years, Louisiana has prioritized tax breaks for wealthy citizens and corporations over investments in education. This is one reason why school districts have seen their state funding frozen even as costs continue to rise, while deep cuts to colleges and universities continue.
As the state budget conversation moves to the full Senate, these cuts over time are important to keep in mind.
Since 2008, state funding for universities is down 55 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, a nearly $1 billion cut after adjusting for inflation. In real dollars, support for higher education is down 5 percent in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ fiscal year 2018 executive budget, compared to 2017. The governor’s budget also does not fund deferred maintenance on college campuses, where crumbling buildings are taking a toll on the overall educational experience. The LSU system alone has more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance needs.
And there are fewer people working to provide an excellent educational experience for Louisiana’s college students. The number of staff at Louisiana’s colleges plummeted 41 percent from 2007-08 to 2016-17, dropping from 32,983 to 19,535. While thousands of these cuts resulted from the privatization of the state’s charity hospital system, Louisiana colleges also have fewer professors, administrators and support personnel than a decade ago.
Need-based aid chronically underfunded
Go Grants- the state’s need-based financial aid program- needs $110 million to provide full awards for all qualified students. The program has been underfunded for virtually all of its 13-year existence.
Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended an additional $35 million for Go Grants if additional revenue became available, which has not occurred. His executive budget kept the program frozen at $26.4 million, where it has been stuck since the 2009 – 10 fiscal year. While legislative leaders have found money to fully finance the merit-based Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), no additional dollars have been carved out for Go-Grants, despite evidence that they provide a strong return on the state’s investment. Low-income TOPS recipients who also receive a Go Grant have a 39 percent higher graduation rate compared to low-income TOPS recipients who don’t receive a Go Grant, according to the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance.
The state’s contribution to public K-12 schools is is allocated to parishes under a formula, the Minimum Foundation Program, that takes into account enrollment, local funding and relative wealth of each parish. For years, the funding formula included an annual inflation factor of 2.75 percent to account for rising costs. But for most of the past decade, state support has not kept pace with those rising costs.
Total enrollment in Louisiana’s K-12 schools has grown by more than 43,000 students from the 2008-9 school year to the upcoming 2017 -2018 school year, a 7 percent increase. Inflation-adjusted spending on K-12 schools dropped 3 percent over the same time period.
Public-school funding hasn’t seen an inflation adjustment since the 2014-15 school year. Doing so next year would cost about $75 million, and is on the governor’s priority list if the Legislature were to raise additional revenue. The funding freezes are taking a toll. The average teacher salary in 2015-16, the last year data is available, was $49,244 – more than $8,800 below the national average and $1,700 below the Southern average.
In addition, the House-passed budget stripped $20 million from the Department of Education, dropping funding for students with disabilities and supplemental courses. However, the Senate Finance Committee reversed that cut in the version of the budget sent to the Senate floor.