Without a doubt, people in Louisiana care about the future of public education, and without a doubt, people are deeply skeptical of Governor Bobby Jindal’s controversial proposal to launch the country’s most expansive school voucher program, a program that, by the numbers, could never possibly work but, still, one that presages an underlying ambition to use taxpayer dollars to build a parallel private education system.

During the last few days, I’ve been somewhat surprised by the number of people who have read and reacted to my post Bobby Jindal Is Mooning Louisiana, both here on my website and on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, but maybe I shouldn’t be: Since launching this website six years ago, my most “popular” posts have been about education issues. It’s encouraging, because while many may (understandably) ignore the daily political grind, when it comes to education, we are all much more willing to engage. Thank God for that.

And during the last few days, I’ve also learned a few other things, which merit an update.

First and most importantly, Bobby Jindal unveiled his budget today, which calls for laying off over 6,300 people (maybe it’s convenient and comforting rhetoric to say these are just “government jobs,” but no matter how you slice it or dice it, at a time of economic uncertainty, Mr. Jindal seeks to eliminate the jobs of thousands and thousands of Louisianans). Governor Jindal wants to close and/or privatize health care centers and prisons. He wants to privatize New Orleans river ferries (which, essentially, amounts to a tax on the working class citizens who rely on this service every day). He wants to change the pension plans of hard-working public servants so that any one under the age of 55 cannot access his or her pension until they turn 67 years old (which imperils the retirement plans of thousands of families). And Governor Jindal wants to give vouchers to private schools through the State’s Minimum Foundation Program (which is probably unconstitutional).

Mr. Jindal is proposing all of this in order to close a $900 million shortfall, and I’m sure he’d want us all to know: He’s doing all of this without raising any taxes, at least directly. How virtuous of him, I guess.

There’s no doubt that Louisiana must make some difficult decisions, but we also need to be honest with one another.

For one, Bobby Jindal would have never even been in this predicament if he hadn’t pushed for and then signed into law the repeal of the Stelly Tax Plan.

According to the Louisiana Budget Project, Louisiana lost approximately $358 million in revenue in the year after its repeal, and obviously, we’re continuing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every single year.

The Stelly Plan was approved through a statewide referendum; the thing was literally on the ballot. Its repeal was not, however.

And it’s proof, here at home, that trickle-down economics simply do not work, that a Republican conservative Governor was willing to overlook the will of the people, through a democratic vote, so that he could provide minimal tax breaks to the wealthy (and reinstate a retrograde tax on the poor and working class).

Today, as Governor Jindal scrambles to put together his budget and calls for firing 6,300 Louisianans and privatizing millions of dollars worth of public assets and services, it’s certainly worth reminding people that this was, in large part, a self-inflicted wound and that the Stelly Plan never threatened Louisiana’s economic competitiveness– though its repeal certainly has.

It’s also worth reminding people that Governor Jindal’s plan to privatize prisons is risky and probably foolish. From a May 2011 report in The New York Times (bold mine):

The conviction that private prisons save money helped drive more than 30 states to turn to them for housing inmates. But Arizona shows that popular wisdom might be wrong: Data there suggest that privately operated prisons can cost more to operate than state-run prisons — even though they often steer clear of the sickest, costliest inmates.

Data? Why should we trust data, especially data printed in The New York Times?

Before I get to the constitutional issues with Jindal’s voucher program, let me get this out of the way: On December 31, 2011, at around 10PM, I boarded the Algiers Point river ferry for the first time in my life. My friends and I wanted to watch the New Years fireworks show on the West Bank– which, by the way, was an excellent idea: The view was spectacular.

The ferries in New Orleans primarily serve two groups of people, the working class and tourists. They’re not glamorous or luxurious by any means; they’re large, industrial boats, and the entire trip takes less than ten minutes. That said, I’m not surprised that someone thinks they can make a quick buck by charging people to use these ferries.

But I am surprised that Governor Jindal wants to privatize the service. As much as he would like to tout that his budget calls for no new taxes, make no mistake: The privatization of river ferries is, effectively, a tax on the hundreds if not thousands of working-class families who use these ferries each and every day. This isn’t just a “quality of life” program; it’s a daily reality for families who don’t have a car, families that don’t necessarily have a voice in Baton Rouge.

So, I propose an alternative solution: Instead of taxing folks who use the ferry to get across the Mississippi River– the lifeblood of Louisiana, Governor Jindal can make up the difference by privatizing the roads around the State Capitol. Come to think of it, I was at the Governor’s Mansion a couple of years ago, and he didn’t even charge me for parking– yet we still have the audacity to charge Saints and Hornets fans to access parking lots paid for by their own taxes!

Make the area around the State Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion a “tax-friendly” district. We don’t need to privatize services and tax people who simply travel between work and home; we can make up the difference by taxing the parking lot of the Governor’s Mansion. $100/hour; without a doubt, his guests can afford it.

On a final, more serious note, back to education: I’m happy that Zack Kopplin and Senator Karen Carter Peterson are reigniting their efforts at repealing the absurd and Orwellian Louisiana Science Education Act, which aims at destroying the integrity of science education in Louisiana by allowing wingnut teachers the ability to teach their wingnut views instead of teaching actual science. We are fortunate to have leaders like Karen Carter Peterson and champions like Zack Kopplin. It’s time to kill that bill.

I’m also happy some state legislators recognize that Bobby Jindal’s proposal to shift vouchers into the State’s Minimum Foundation Program is likely unconstitutional. From WVUE:

“I think that probably has some constitutional problems because that’s supposed to fund public education, and whether, or not you’re for vouchers, or not I just think it’s inappropriate to put the money to pay for vouchers in the MFP formula,” said Senator Ed Murray, D- New Orleans.

What is Senator Murray referring to?

This (bold mine):

(B)  Minimum Foundation Program.  The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or its successor, shall annually develop and adopt a formula which shall be used to determine the cost of a minimum foundation program of education in all public elementary and secondary schools as well as to equitably allocate the funds to parish and city school systems.  Such formula shall provide for a contribution by every city and parish school system.  Prior to approval of the formula by the legislature, the legislature may return the formula adopted by the board to the board and may recommend to the board an amended formula for consideration by the board and submission to the legislature for approval.  The legislature shall annually appropriate funds sufficient to fully fund the current cost to the state of such a program as determined by applying the approved formula in order to insure a minimum foundation of education in all public elementary and secondary schools.  Neither the governor nor the legislature may reduce such appropriation, except that the governor may reduce such appropriation using means provided in the act containing the appropriation provided that any such reduction is consented to in writing by two-thirds of the elected members of each house of the legislature.  The funds appropriated shall be equitably allocated to parish and city school systems according to the formula as adopted by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, or its successor, and approved by the legislature prior to making the appropriation.  Whenever the legislature fails to approve the formula most recently adopted by the board, or its successor, the last formula adopted by the board, or its successor, and approved by the legislature shall be used for the determination of the cost of the minimum foundation program and for the allocation of funds appropriated.

Governor Jindal wants to use this program to provide vouchers to private schools. He can’t. He’s prohibited. It’s against the law. MFP funding applies exclusively, by state statute, to public schools in a parish or city school system. During the next few weeks, look for Governor Jindal to defend his rationale by way of saying that other State Supreme Courts have ruled in his favor. And when he and his staff members and apologists say this, it won’t make it true. Jindal’s plan is severely over-reaching. It’s not only a usurpation of public education; it’s manifestly illegal and unconstitutional.

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