Give Louisiana voters the chance to redefine public education funding

Louisiana voters are used to making the hard decisions about public education that divide their lawmakers. With any luck, they’ll have the chance to make those hard decisions again.

After all, it’s the voters and families of the Pelican State who are waiting in line for the public school alternatives that lawmakers have made available but can’t seem to fund adequately. Consider Louisiana’s new Course Choice program, which allows students to shop around for courses—virtual and otherwise—not offered in their zoned school. State schools superintendent John White said earlier this week that there was a wait list of 1,000 students who wanted to take part, with 100 new applications arriving daily.

But White will have to scrounge for dollars if he wants to accommodate everybody. He had to find $2 million to pay for the 2,000 slots he set aside initially, and he figured he’d need to find another $1.5 million just to meet current demand.

Why the funding dilemma? The state Supreme Court declared in May that a constitutionally protected source of public funding is off limits to this decidedly different way of educating the public. The “minimum foundation” for public education in Louisiana—which this year was set at $3.4 billion—must   go only to public schools: district and charter. Lawmakers initially paid for the Course Choice initiative as well as a school-voucher program through this sizable pot of money, but the court said they did so illegally.

That didn’t kill vouchers or course choice, but it did mean that state officials would be searching for spare change in the sofa cushions to fund these efforts. That’s why wait lists are swelling. Sooner or later, Louisiana residents will demand more.

And they should have the chance to decide whether to fulfill that demand. For what is “public” in Louisiana education today is a largely charter school system in New Orleans, four publicly funded private school–choice programs, a recovery school district, and online charter schools. Lawmakers should ask voters whether the minimum foundation of public education funding should go to all options that families can choose.

That wouldn’t be unprecedented. In her worthwhile history of the education article of the Louisiana constitution in the Louisiana Law Review, policy insider Jackie Ducote said that the 1974 reframing of the state constitution was so bifurcated when it came to education that delegates to the constitutional convention punted the hard stuff to voters.

And voters responded with extraordinary results. The 1974 revision of the constitution changed the education article to read that the “legislature shall provide for the education of the people of the state and shall establish and maintain a public educational system.” I emphasized the “and” to prove a point: Louisiana didn’t look upon public education so narrowly. This was also the convention at which the constitution ejected the dreaded Blaine Amendment, which prohibited the direct public funding of “sectarian” education and which currently exists, in other variations, in thirty-eight other states.

Everything about public education that the state saw in 1974 is in flux today. If voters today want a different—even customized—public education but don’t want it funded on the cheap, they should have the chance to redefine public education funding.

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