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Senate approves Landry's plan to give parents public money for private school

The Louisiana State Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
The Louisiana State Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

Louisiana is one step closer to giving parents tax dollars to pay for private education after the Senate approved a compromise bill late Thursday.

The heavily amended bill passed largely along party lines, with four Republicans joining Democrats to oppose it. Next, the proposal heads to the House where a similar measure advanced easily last month.

Gov. Jeff Landry’s signature education proposal would “establish education savings accounts,” or ESAs, that give parents public money to spend on things like private school tuition, uniforms and tutoring.

Initially, the program would be for low-income families, children with disabilities and students leaving public schools. But it could eventually be open to everyone.

The proposal faced opposition in the Senate for a number of reasons, including its potentially high cost, not enough accountability and fear the program will funnel money out of school districts.

“This is an abandonment of public education,” said Sen. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat from New Orleans, before voting against the bill.

He said the state has a responsibility to invest in its public schools rather than give families money to leave the system.

The bill’s Republican author rejected Duplessis’ framing.

“Is this a battle against public schools? Not at all,” said Sen. Rick Edmonds, a Republican from Baton Rouge. He argued ESAs are an important part of a larger plan to transform education in the state and improve outcomes for all children.

“This bill is really about giving parents another opportunity to take care of their children.”

The policy is backed by conservative groups and GOP donors, and it mirrors legislation passed in other Republican-led states.

Program less clear

The amended Senate bill is less ambitious than what was first proposed — and less clear.

Lawmakers removed language that specified the amount of money parents would receive and how quickly the program would grow. Now, it’s up to state education officials to decide both.

Landry said Thursday, at a town hall to rally support for ESAs, that he hopes the state’s board of education will move quickly to “perfect” the program and that the Legislature will appropriate the money.

“I believe that within the next four to five years we could get to full implementation,” he said.

The cost of the program is unclear, though one estimate put the price tag for universal ESAs at more than $500 million a year.

Even if the expense is far less, it could still be an issue. State officials are projecting a deficit starting next year and have used that to justify cuts to early education and a stipend instead of a permanent pay raise for teachers.

Landry suggested the Legislature could free up funding by rewriting part of the state’s constitution, unlocking money reserved for specific uses that he claims is going unused.

Accountability concerns

Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, a Democrat from Monroe, raised concerns throughout the legislative process over what she described as a “lack of accountability” in the bill.

Public schools, as well as those that receive state funding through existing voucher programs, are judged based on their students’ performance on state exams. But under the proposal, private schools that receive tax dollars through ESAs would be allowed to pick the test they use.

“What’s never been done in this state is that a school who receives state dollars comes up with their own test that they want to take,” Jackson-Andrews said. 

She proposed an amendment to require participating private schools to test students using an exam selected by the state's board of education. But the amendment failed.

Some of the bill’s supporters argued the requirement was unfair, since private schools choose their own curriculum and don't teach to a shared test, and would discourage participation.

Jackson-Andrews held firm in her rationale, arguing without a shared measure, the true success of the program won't be known.

She challenged the bill’s supporters to reconsider.

“If this is a great idea … guess what accountability will show? That you were right, if you support the bill, and I was wrong.”

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.