One of the easiest ways to rile up lawmakers is to threaten them with a special session, which is what Gov. Bobby Jindal did recently — to very little fanfare recently. The governor was just setting the stage. It is possible the state Supreme Court could render its decision on the administration's voucher overhaul law while lawmakers are in regular session, which starts April 8 and ends June 6.
A district judge ruled in November that the voucher program unconstitutionally sends public funds to private schools. The state Supreme Court took up the case last week. It will take up another section of the 2012 education reform package later this year when it considers the constitutionality of a bill rewriting the rules for tenure and teacher evaluations.
Depending on the timing, Jindal could wind up pushing a reworked version of his voucher law through the regular session with only a few weeks remaining. In what would be the political equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, lawmakers may oblige under the gun, especially if faced with the option of returning to Baton Rouge for a special session in the fall, by which time teachers' unions will have ample time to fire up their troops. On the other hand, lawmakers may need a special session if the Supreme Court delivers its decision after the deadline to introduce new legislation.
Equally uncertain is the fate of proposals to alter the popular TOPS scholarship program and give university management boards the authority to increase tuition, something only lawmakers currently enjoy, or rather detest. The latter issue is now billed as "tuition freedom."
To keep TOPS afloat, Team Jindal wants to redirect $120 million from a tobacco settlement fund. That "sweep" is among nearly 60 other dedicated funds targeted for transfers in the next budget. The administration probably hopes that tying the sweeps to a popular program like TOPS will convince lawmakers to go along with the controversial plan to use one-time funds for recurring expenses.
James Caillier, executive director of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation where the TOPS program originated, says only $29 million is being used from the state general fund for scholarships next fiscal year. That's an all-time low. "It's hard to make the argument that TOPS is a drain on the budget," Caillier says. "Maybe next session."
As for tuition freedom, there appears to be another hostage situation brewing. Senate Education Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, and House Education Chairman Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, are proposing a new outcomes-based system for university funding — and they want their proposals to take priority. "Until our bill passes, we will not be hearing any of [the tuition freedom bills]," Carter says.
Appel says the outcomes-based proposal would appoint a task force to place colleges into five tiers, where their graduation rates and performances could be compared to similar schools elsewhere. The proposed system would take the place of the GRAD Act, which also allows universities to raise tuition based on performance. Some lawmakers complain that method is too easily manipulated.
University funding from the state would be divided into two categories under the Appel-Carter plan: 60 percent for baseline funding, with no accountability required; and 40 percent pegged to outcomes. "Tennessee is already doing this," Appel says.
House Speaker Pro Tem Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, will be the lead author on a tuition freedom bill backed by the Board of Regents, which is also considering litigation on the issue. Similar efforts have failed miserably in the past, but this time Leger has a partner in House Speaker Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, and an argument that may find appeal among his colleagues. "We're one of only two states in the nation that require a vote of the Legislature to increase tuition," Leger says.
In drafting the new education package, Appel says the administration and governor have granted a greater degree of "independence" for himself and Carter. "They're more focused on the tax swap plan right now," Appel says.
But if the opportunity strikes to use education issues as leverage to pass the tax swap plan or next year's budget, Jindal will certainly leap into frame twisting a villain's mustache with one hand and roping education to the track with the other.
This is a high-stakes game, and the Jindal administration has learned when to take prisoners — and when to let them get run over.
— Jeremy Alford is a freelance journalist in Baton Rouge. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @alfordwrites.