Louisiana cuts education funding

This story was published in The Hullabaloo on October 8, 2010.

Because of a unique mix of post-Katrina events, existing fiscal policy and political will, Louisiana may have to slash up to 73.5 percent of its portion of the budget allocated for healthcare and higher education spending between now and July 2011 to make up for expected losses.

As federal stimulus funding is set to run out in July 2011, many states are facing massive budget cuts across the board. At Louisiana State University, cuts of this magnitude translate into losses of $62 million for fiscal year 2011 – 2012, which could result in roughly 700 layoffs, the closure of seven of its 14 schools and the elimination of one-third of its degree programs.

“We do not know what lies ahead or what we will be asked to do next,” LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said, according to his website, LSUBudget Impact. “But we will continue to make the case to all constituents as forcibly as possible that these cuts would be destructive to the state’s flagship institution, catastrophic to the local economy and disastrous for the future education of the children of Louisiana.”

In a conference call with college journalists on Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that while he understood the severity of the Louisiana budget cuts, there is not much the federal government can do.

“I don’t know how much we could intervene with the state legislature,” Duncan said. “Many of these issues at the local level we can’t control at the federal level. But I will look at legal remedies.”

Struggles at UNO

The University of New Orleans expects to lose $13.5 million for fiscal year 2011 – 2012, resulting in approximately 114 layoffs and the closure of many of its key academic programs in the liberal arts, science and business schools.

UNO departments such as Spanish and French, anthropology and geology, and business disciplines have merged as faculty numbers dwindle, leading to fewer and more crowded classes. Students have complained that the lack of janitorial staff has led to dilapidated conditions in classrooms. In response to the budget cuts,UNO’s student body has taken action by holding campus-wide protests, such as the “Class Walkout” Sept. 1 and the “Block Party for Higher Education” Wednesday.

“There is power in numbers,” UNO Student President John Mineo said. “We need to unite all the universities and march on the capitol so the [legislators] up in Baton Rouge hear our voice and see the results of their actions.”

LSU students protest

LSU senior Bradley Wood recently co-founded the activist group Proud Students, which aims to unite all Louisiana public universities to speak with one collective voice. Wood said he worries that LSU students won’t realize the severity of the budget cuts until it is too late. “The LSU student body is a bit apathetic… probably because it doesn’t seem like LSU is having budget cuts,” Wood said. “They’re building new buildings, they’re planting nice shrubs and artificial grass. There’s no atmosphere of urgency. On the surface everything appears to be functioning, but they are proposing to do some serious cuts that will cause serious damage.”

Proud Students, in conjunction with other university organizations, held a jazz funeral procession Thursday onLSU’s Parade Grounds to raise awareness among the student body about the effects of the budget cuts.

Ryan Orgera, LSU Graduate Student Association vice president, said the first step in taking action is to get a substantial amount of undergraduate students on board.
“Faculty and graduate students have been quicker to respond, but undergraduate students have the most power,” Orgera said. “We’re hoping to get them involved to ensure the legislature and governor see the across-the-board displeasure with these cuts.”

The March on the Capitol, planned to take place Nov. 10, aims to have the students’ collective voice be heard.
Political context

Duncan said the most effective way for Louisiana students to get legislators’ attention, however, is through political action. “Republican, Democrat — it doesn’t matter,” Duncan said. “We have an election coming up and young people need to get out and vote. I would love to see every candidate from every party judged in large part on what their stance is on education and education funding.”

Gaston Caperton, College Board president and former governor of West Virginia, said in the conference call that he understood the dilemma lawmakers face in tough economic times, but that education should be a top priority regardless of budget deficits. “When I was governor, I had to raise taxes to increase teachers’ salaries and improve educational facilities and capabilities in my state,” Caperton said. “It wasn’t a popular thing to do, but it was the right thing to do. When people started to see money being spent in the right way… I had no trouble getting re-elected.”

The post-Katrina influx of FEMA and other rebuilding funds into Louisiana combined with profitable higher oil prices resulted in a state budget surplus in 2007. Though these billion-dollar surpluses were not sustainable in the long term, they allowed legislators to cut taxes across the state, which further exacerbated the effects of the national economic recession on Louisiana.

“We have to challenge states to invest [in education],” Duncan said. “It’s interesting to me that so often taxpayers don’t question increasing the number of jails or what we spend on prisons, but every little dollar we put into education somehow gets challenged.”

Louisiana’s legislative stipulations

Louisiana’s constitution limits the cuttable parts of the state’s budget to a 12 percent portion that provides healthcare and higher education funding. So though the overall budget shortfall would only constitute 9 percent of the total Louisiana budget, the legislative restriction on where those cuts can occur force higher education and healthcare to take a 73.5 percent cut, whereas government expenditures on programs such as K-12 education, jail and police are safe.

“It’s an attack on higher education,” Orgera said. Orgera said the ultimate goal is to persuade legislators to be open to modifying or ratifying the Louisiana constitution in order to lessen the budget cuts. “We looked at Florida and Alabama’s flagship institutions, and we found that they were able to mitigate these cuts much more effectively than we are because the constitutions of Alabama and Florida don’t stipulate that you have to cut higher education and healthcare before other programs,” Orgera said. “So it is really hard to compare our situation with other states.”

While Wood said he wants to make sure Louisiana politicians hear the students’ plights, he said he is not trying to urge any political agenda through his group. “There’s a fine line between being motivated out of educational purity and being motivated out of political opinion,” Wood said. “It gets difficult when you throw politics into it. Now if a politician comes out stating simply, ‘I will cut education as much as I can,’ then that’s a little different.”

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