NEW ORLEANS – A move to standardize how education funds are divvied up among all New Orleans public schools has prompted a federal lawsuit alleging that the new formula will violate contracts between charter schools and the Orleans Parish School District, while depriving some schools of due process and equal protection under the law.
“Our clients have to operate as businesses,” attorney James A. Brown, who represents Lusher and Lake Forest charter schools, told the Louisiana Record. Brown, who filed the lawsuit on March 17 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, said the new per-pupil funding proposal threatens the autonomy of charter schools in the city, upends their ability to plan annual budgets and harms students through discriminatory funding cuts.
“If all of that can be thrown out the door … that is a larger threat to the charter school movement as a whole,” he said.
A state law that took effect this year required that all New Orleans schools – those in both the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish district – operate under the same funding formula. The Recovery system has allocated funding based on a formula weighted toward special education students, but Orleans Parish provided funding based on a formula used statewide that earmarked funds to gifted students as well. A task force then came up with a citywide proposal that focuses on helping special needs students but still offers some funding for gifted children.
The new funding formula, which will be implemented by Orleans Parish Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., means that Lusher and Lake Forest schools will face cuts because they tended to have more gifted and talented students and somewhat fewer special-needs students.
Lusher is looking at a $291,000 budget cut – 2 percent – this year, but Brown stressed that the school’s losses will accumulate into the millions of dollars over time.
That’s because even though schools are prevented from losing more than 2 percent of their budget revenues under the plan, the complicated formula prevents some schools from seeing any funding increases until tax revenue growth exceeds a certain amount based on comparisons between the new and old school budgets.
A 12-member task force made up of New Orleans stakeholders approved the new funding formula, but the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education did not formally sign off on it. Instead, the board left the issue in the hands of the Orleans Parish district. Brown, an attorney with Liskow & Lewis in New Orleans, argued that having a per-pupil funding formula in New Orleans that differs from the norm in the rest of the state violates federal “equal protection” statutes.
He stressed that the issues Lusher and Lake Forest schools are bringing up are not a question of rich vs. poor or black vs. white. Brown said that 60 percent of the gifted and talented students in Orleans Parish are African-American and that the new funding formula would hurt a lot of students who are poor or middle class.
“My clients are very diverse,” he said. “Lake Forest is predominantly African-American. This is not a privilege issue.”
Furthermore, Brown said the new formula cuts funding for talented and gifted students by 70 percent and also reduces funding for regular students.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, most of the public schools in New Orleans came under the control of the Recovery School District, and as time went on, many schools in both the Recovery and Orleans Parish systems began to operate under charter contracts.