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Must ask right questions on LA education policy

To get useful answers, you have to ask the right questions. By and large, that didn’t happen at a recent gathering that looked to improve the state of education in Louisiana.

The leftist Louisiana Budget Project sponsored an “Invest in Louisiana” conference earlier this month. More properly, it should have been called “Invest Even More in Louisiana” because, as speakers admitted, Louisiana already invests plenty but has the worst outcomes, according to national test results.

So, the hedging began. Even though the state spends around the middle of the pack per pupil, one speaker tried to excuse the poor performance by saying – you guessed it – more money was necessary because the state had too many students coming from poor households, and this somehow held them back.

However, if that were the case, then how come peer states like Arkansas, Georgia, and Mississippi had students outperform Louisiana’s and at lower mean cost to their taxpayers, even with higher proportions of their students participating in reduced-price and free lunch programs designed to assist poorer households? But that question wasn’t asked.

Lost in the shuffle as well was that a significant presence of private schools in the state caused the proportion of public school students coming from impoverished households to increase, despite the efforts of the (unfairly maligned for ideological reasons) Louisiana Scholarship Program. If public schools could do the job adequately in the first place, there wouldn’t be such a flight to an alternative system. This points to policy, not resources, as the problem. How does this change? That question wasn’t asked.

The drumbeat continued regarding higher education. Another speaker observed that every state but one had in the last decade reduced its taxpayer contribution per college student less than Louisiana (although that doesn’t factor in the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which pays almost all tuition for about a third of all students) while it increased tuition more than any other. But he didn’t reveal that, even so, the state ranked around the middle in taxpayer effort.

Nor mentioned was that Louisiana tuition and fees still lag the rest of the country, coming in a just 79 percent of the national mean. This explains why per student total revenue effort was just 77 percent of that mean.

In all, for higher education policy-makers budgeted slightly more for fiscal year 2020 that was spent in FY 2008, and against inflation and adjusted for the number of students such spending is down relatively only 5.4 percent over a dozen years. Thus, the right question was whether further tuition and fee increases should attempt to bring the state closer to the national per student revenue figure for spending, or whether structural changes to the state’s overbuilt system of higher education should occur to streamline the system and get more bang for the buck. But it wasn’t asked.

In fact, only one speaker hinted at the right question. East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Tramelle Howard pointed out that money must be spent in ways that improve student outcomes, saying too often his own district resembled “just a big employment agency.”

Just so. Given Louisiana public schools’ track record of relatively inefficient use of funding compared to peer schools in other states, no additional funding should come their way unless joined with reforms, such as ensuring greater teacher competency, that induce more efficient resource use. How to do that was the right question, but ideology prevented that from the debate it deserved.

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