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Louisiana Districts Challenge School-Finance Formula

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Two Louisiana school districts have filed suit in federal district court in Baton Rouge in an attempt to force state officials to restructure the state's school-finance formula.

Officials in the Livingston and Grant parishes, or counties, charge that the state's 50-year-old "minimum foundation program" fails to adequately support poor districts such as theirs.

Spending disparities allowed by the formula, which will provide an estimated $1.2 billion for the state's 66 school districts this year, violate the equal-protection clauses in the Louisiana and U.S. constitutions, the suit charges.

Per-pupil spending in Louisiana in 1983-84 ranged from $6,099 in Cameron Parish to $1,892 in Livingston, according to Joseph Kyle, deputy superintendent for management and finance in the state3education department. In Grant Parish, per-pupil spending that school year was $2,188.

The state's average per-pupil expenditure is $2,598, based on average daily membership, according to Mr. Kyle. In 1983-84, the state supplied an average of 53.3 percent of all school operating costs, with 36.9 percent coming from local districts and 9.8 percent from the federal government, according to the National Education Association.

The school-finance formula, the suit charges, makes educational quality "a function of the geographical accident of the parish in which the children reside."

Named as defendants in the suit are the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state treasurer, and the state's legislative auditor. The defendants, who oppose any substantial changes to the formula, argue that the school-finance system distributes funds as required by the state constitution.

"We think it's an equitable formula," Mr. Kyle said.

Property, Sales Taxes

Louisiana's finance formula distributes state aid on the basis of the number of teachers employed by each parish, a figure calculated upon the number of children enrolled in parish schools as of Oct. 1 of each year, according to Mr. Kyle.

In addition, localities are required to supply the equivalent of what a 5.5-mill tax would raise on the assessable commercial and private property in each parish. But parishes are permitted to raise the required local funds through sales taxes instead of property taxes, Mr. Kyle said.

But in the Livingston and Grant school districts and in other poor parishes, little school income is available from local property taxes, sales taxes, or school-owned land, according to Fred Benton, the Baton Rouge lawyer representing the parishes.

Although the plaintiffs are making "a heroic effort" to obtain funds from sales and property taxes, Mr. Benton said, they characteristically raise far less per pupil than many of the state's other districts. That, he said, is "purely an accident of location."

Exacerbating what Mr. Benton considers the primary inequity is the state's system of allocating revenue-sharing funds. State funds are distributed equally, with all parishes receiving the same amount without regard to their economic status.

"We would like to compute a new number, a sales-tax and property-tax millage equivalent" that is measured in units of local effort, Mr. Benton said. That type of modification would end, he added, the "arbitrary discrimination" in the amount of funds received between one parish and another.

The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the equity of the minimum foundation program in a similar case brought in the late 1970's by Jefferson Parish, according to an official of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Since then, both the legislature and the bese have on several occasions examined the school-finance system, but neither body has reached consensus on substantial revisions.

Last spring, in an attempt to compensate for dwindling revenues from levies on natural resources, the legislature voted to raise the sales tax from 3 to 4 percent and increased other taxes from which the public schools benefit.

Last April, Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who says he is watching the proceedings of the lawsuit very carefully, asked the board to determine whether the formula is equitable and whether there might be a better way of distributing state funds to school districts. A panel of the board, called the Task Force on School Finance, is currently studying those issues, according to Mr. Kyle, but is not expected to present a preliminary report until midsummer.

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