Louisiana Black Caucus Does Students a Disfavor

Published May 1, 2008

The Ides of March brought good tidings to newly minted Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who saw his economic development tax cuts approved by bipartisan majorities in both legislative chambers on March 15. The measure included a historic school choice bill, which the state’s black legislative caucus opposed.

The landmark legislation allows parents to deduct 50 percent of their children’s private school tuition–up to $5,000 per student–from their state income taxes, beginning in 2010. Homeschooling parents are eligible for the deduction, and all parents may deduct expenses for public and private school uniforms, textbooks, and school supplies.

African-American lawmakers reliably echoed the teacher unions’ rhetoric, claiming any income tax credits diverting dollars from public schools will hurt poor and minority students, and arguing any income tax credit diverts dollars from the public schools to the detriment of poor and minority students.

But the reality of current school funding disparities shows public schools outstrip all others in per-pupil costs in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Less Expensive

Before the storms, the New Orleans Parish District spent $7,877 per student. This year, the state-run Recovery School District will spend about $12,900 per student, according to Louisiana School Superintendent Paul Pastorek. That constitutes a 65 percent increase in per-pupil spending.

Only 4 percent of the nation’s 108 largest school districts spend more than $12,000 per student. However, the true disparity becomes evident when we examine the cost per pupil for charter or special public schools or private schools.

At the Southern University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, where Jindal sends his own child, tuition is only $3,852 per student. Sharon Clark, principal of Sophie B. Wright Charter School in New Orleans, says she routinely spends several thousand less per student than the New Orleans Recovery District.

The primary cause of this disparity could be a reason for black legislators to revisit the debate about funding private schools.

The Recovery School District receives the same per- pupil financing from Louisiana as other charter schools statewide. However, the Recovery School District receives substantially more special-education students, who come with additional funds from the federal government.

Disproportionate Representation

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), all disabled children are entitled to a free, appropriate public education–defined by the U.S. Department of Education as one that meets the individual needs of students with disabilities as well as it does non-disabled students. To the maximum extent appropriate, disabled students are to be educated in the same classrooms as their peers.

The federal government has developed a system of individualized education programs (IEP) to be designed for each student eligible for special-education funding. The disabilities specified under IDEA are mental retardation, hearing and speech impairments, visual impairments, and emotional disturbance.

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) students have been disproportionately represented among the ranks of special-education students for decades. In 2006, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), a 70-year-old nonprofit group based in Virginia, released a study showing a child’s ethnicity significantly influences his or her chances of being misidentified as a special-education student. Studies have shown misidentified students have limited access to rigorous curricula and succumb to the bigotry of low expectations.

According to the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving educational outcomes in disabled and gifted children, disabled African-American students are more likely to be taught in separate classrooms or schools than white students. CLD students, of which blacks form a substantial percentage, also have higher rates of suspensions and expulsions.

Inordinate Funding

Thus we may have an inordinate amount of special-education funding following black students who are misidentified as having special needs.

The teacher unions claim charter and private schools can control their admissions and class sizes to exclude “problem” or emotionally disturbed “difficult to educate” students. Little wonder, unions say, that charters and private schools actually perform better. They have allegedly eliminated the worst students and created smaller class sizes by refusing to accept all comers.

It is time for black legislators to reexamine this fallacy.

According to a 1997 study by the Midland, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, while conventional public schools enroll the majority of difficult-to-educate students, they don’t accept everyone. At-risk students, those from juvenile courts, and emotionally disturbed pupils are often sent, at public expense, to private schools with expertise in educating them.

At least seven states have programs enabling public schools to contract with private, alternative schools to serve at-risk students. Some private schools include students with disabilities in the regular student bodies.

Private Schools Meeting Needs

The bottom line is that parochial schools, homeschools, and charters offer a wider variety of options for teaching the difficult-to-educate students black legislators often use as props to justify their universal support for public schools only.

Jindal’s tuition tax credit will provide the parents of black children who qualify as CLD or difficult-to-educate with access to quality educational services. According to the Mackinac Center, private schools are meeting the needs of students of all races.

It’s high time black legislators reflected upon the vast number of kids trapped in special-education programs that don’t serve them well. Then the black caucuses in state legislatures nationwide could find solace and value in tuition tax credit plans that offer more specialized services to address those children’s needs.

Ralph W. Conner ([email protected]) is The Heartland Institute’s local legislation manager.

For more information …

“Project Intersect: Studying Special Education in Charter Schools,” by Lauren Morando Rhim, Jennifer Faukner, and Margaret J. McLaughlin, Instititute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, November 2006: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?artId=23055

“Do Private Schools Serve Difficult to Educate Students?” by Janet R. Beales and Dr. Thomas F. Bertonneau, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, October 1, 1997: http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=361