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Reading test, culture wars, school choice: Roundup of Louisiana education legislation

The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge
Kezia Setyawan
The Louisiana State House in Baton Rouge.

The budget dominated Louisiana’s legislative session, which wrapped in June, but lawmakers still passed dozens of bills that will impact public schools — many with little discussion.

Among them, the end of corporal punishment without parent permission and a new requirement that the words “In God We Trust” be displayed in every classroom.

Legislators debated how to spend an estimated $2.2 billion in extra revenue, including a proposed $3,000 pay raise for educators, that was ultimately knocked down to a one time $2,000 bonus for teachers and $1,000 for support staff.

Louisiana’s teachers make $52,472 a year on average, more than $12,000 less than educators nationally, according to the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

The Republican-dominated legislature rejected the Louisiana Department of Education’s request for increased funding through the state’s school funding formula. State spending on school operational costs, including insurance and retirement, has been stagnant for more than a decade.

But it did set aside $25 million this school year to help districts hire and retain teachers. The state, like many others, has been facing an educator shortage. Districts can apply to use the money for things like hiring bonuses and to reward existing teachers.

Here’s what else you should know about education bills that passed — and failed to pass — at the State Capitol as schools reopen across the state.

New 3rd grade reading test

Starting not this school year, but next, students will have to pass a reading test to advance to the fourth grade, a policy passed this session and modeled after a similar law in Mississippi.

Third graders will have three chances to take the test starting in April 2025. If they fail for a third time following summer school, they’ll have to repeat the grade before trying again the following spring.

The law provides exceptions for students diagnosed with dyslexia and children who are learning English or have other qualifying conditions.

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, who is also running for governor, authored the bill. He described it as an accountability tool for students, parents, teachers and schools as they work to increase literacy.

Reading instruction has been a priority for Nelson and other lawmakers in recent years. The state already has laws that mandate teacher training in the science of reading and a screening system to track young students’ progress.

Under the new law, third graders who score in the lowest category on a standard screener won’t be allowed to advance until they improve or are approved for an exemption. Schools are required to provide repeat-students with increased support and monitoring, including 90 minutes a day of reading instruction.

Nelson said 8% of students in Mississippi were held back the first year its policy was in effect. It’s unclear how many students may be at risk in Louisiana.

The bill received little scrutiny from lawmakers, including whether schools have the resources they need to provide the increased support for struggling students that the law now mandates.

Sen. Edward Price, D-Gonzales, was one of 11 senators, out of 39, who voted against it.

“How are we going to put this program in place without the funding, when we have systems laying off teachers right now because they don’t have the funding,” Price said on the Senate floor during this year’s legislative session.

While Mississippi’s retention law allocated specific funding for implementation — the program currently receives $15 million a year — Louisiana’s doesn’t.

Nelson, in an email, pointed to the state’s overall K-12 spending, more than $4 billion a year, which he said translates to nearly 20% more funding per student than neighboring states.

He said the goal is to prioritize existing funding and that if more is needed, the legislature can appropriate additional money.

Louisiana’s Department of Education is in the process of developing policy around the law, according to a spokesperson. Once complete, it will be brought to the state’s school board for approval. It isn’t clear when the policy will be ready and shared with schools.

In the meantime, there’s a part of the law that appears up to debate — whether it applies to charter schools. If it doesn’t, the law, which has been presented as an essential accountability tool, won’t apply to dozens of schools and tens of thousands of students, including all children in New Orleans.

The law doesn’t mention charter schools, which it doesn’t have to, but lawmakers also failed to amend the state’s charter school law.

Caroline Roemer, with the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, said because of this, her organization, which represents nearly all charters statewide, told its members they don’t have to follow the law.

Nelson said the law was intended to include charter schools and that he was made aware at the end of the legislative process that the bill’s language, or lack thereof, could cause issues.

“I didn’t want to jeopardize passage by holding the bill up and possibly having time run out as happened the year before,” he said, adding that the legislature can “remove any ambiguity as to its application to charters,” before the law takes full effect in 2025.

Culture war bills vetoed

Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed two bills targeting LGBTQ+ students and teachers in public schools. Legislators attempted to override the governor on both, but failed.

The state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, modeled on similar laws passed in other states, would have barred teachers and other adults from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students.

“This bill unfairly places vulnerable children at the front lines of a vicious culture war,” Edwards said in his veto override message, adding it’s “yet another example of a string of discriminatory bills being pushed by extreme groups around the country under the guise of religious freedom.”

The other bill required teachers to use the name and pronouns assigned to a student at birth and was pitched by its author, Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, under the umbrella of parents’ rights.

Parents could request that a different name or pronoun be used for their child, the bill said, but staff were allowed to reject the parent’s choice if it violated their “religious or moral convictions.”

Edwards said the bill could lead to state-sanctioned bullying.

“I believe this legislation is rooted in discrimination fueled by ignorance and hatred,” he wrote.

Versions of both bills are likely to be reintroduced when the legislature reconvenes in March.

While not specifically directed at schools, another law supported by conservative lawmakers, and signed by Edwards, requires public libraries to create a separate card system for children.

The stated goal is to stop them from checking out books and other materials that contain sexual content unless they have a parent’s permission.

While advocates argue it’s common sense, opponents say the law is unnecessary, politicizes libraries and could disproportionately target LGBTQ+ literature.

Libraries have until June 1, 2024 to implement the law, and if they don’t, they could lose state funding.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who is also running for governor, was a vocal supporter of the bill along with conservative groups.

School choice benefit slightly expanded

While public schools won’t see new funding from the state, families who send their children to private institutions can claim a larger tax break.

Louisiana is one of several states where lawmakers have been working for years to expand school choice, including spending public dollars on private education.

Families can now deduct up to $6,000 per student — up from $5,000 — from their total taxable income starting in 2024. This is the first time the credit has increased since its creation in 2008.

Deductions, while primarily geared toward tuition and other fees, can also be used for other expenses, like textbooks and curriculum for home-schooled students. The deductions cost the state roughly $22 million a year in lost revenue, and the amount is expected to increase to $24.2 million under the expansion.

Erin Bendily, with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, cheered the decision, but said the state has “a long way to go.”

“We have some options beyond the traditional public school where many families are assigned to send their kids, but we don’t have enough,” she said.

Those options include roughly 150 charter schools, primarily concentrated in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, programs that allow families to enroll their children in another public school if the one they attend is underperforming and voucher programs that help cover private school tuition under specific circumstances in addition to the tax credit system.

Bendily and others, including state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, argue expanding options for families will improve school quality and student outcomes.

She supports the creation of education savings accounts, or ESAs, which like other voucher programs allow families to take funding with them if they leave the public system. The difference is the money goes directly to parents, rather than schools and other education providers.

About a dozen states have ESAs. While most are limited to specific students, like those with disabilities or children from low-income families, a few states offer them to everybody.

Louisiana lawmakers have proposed a variety of ESAs, including a universal bill this past session, but so far they’ve failed to pass or been vetoed. Bendily expects similar bills to be reintroduced next session.

Opponents point to research that shows voucher programs don’t necessarily improve test scores or graduation rates and can instead have the opposite effect.

Some programs lack accountability and transparency, since many operate with little to no regulation. And then there’s the issue of funding — mainly, that public schools have too little already and that losing more students, and therefore more dollars, could be crippling.

Bendily pushed back on these critiques. She said accountability can be written into policies — though whether Louisiana lawmakers will do that remains to be seen — and pointed to other studies that show school choice policies can benefit kids academically.

“I believe that some of the criticisms a lot of times boil down to arguments more rooted in fear of competition in school systems that for many, many years have served as monopolies across our state and country,” she said.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.