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Other states have passed school choice programs. Could Louisiana be next under a new governor?

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Aubri Juhasz
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WWNO
Several classes at Young Audiences Charter School at Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep were almost evenly split between students with and without masks on March 21, 2022.

Across the country, a growing number of states are setting up state-funded education savings accounts, or ESAs, to give more students education opportunities outside of public schools. This year, Louisiana would have joined them if not for a pair of vetoes by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who said the policy would have crippled already underfunded public schools.

But Edwards’ days in office are numbered, and Republican lawmakers and lobbyists for the change have shown their willingness to bide their time in hopes of securing a victory in the next major battle for school choice.

A conversation on ESAs
Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun and education reporter Aubri Juhasz to discuss the significance – and possible future – of the education savings account debate in Louisiana.

Like other voucher programs, ESAs allow families who leave the public school system to take public funding with them and use it to pay for private school, and in some cases, homeschooling, online courses, private tutoring or even college.

But one important way that state-funded ESAs differ from more traditional voucher programs is that rather than give the money directly to schools, the saving account structure means the state gives the money to parents to spend instead — possibly circumventing the legal pitfalls that voucher programs ran into when they funneled public money directly to religious private schools.

While state lawmakers have proposed education savings account bills before this year, Louisiana’s 2022 Regular Session marked the first coordinated effort to bring large-scale ESA programs to the state.

State lawmakers and lobbyists for school choice pushed seven educational savings account bills during the session. Some were narrowly focused on small groups of students, like children from military families or in foster care, while others were larger and based eligibility on school performance or students’ academic achievement. One universal ESA proposal would have extended eligibility to every child in the state.

In packed committee rooms, lawmakers, lobbyists, parents and people at every level of the state education apparatus gathered to fight for — or against — education savings account bills.

“Education is one of the biggest things that can lift people out of poverty, and it’s the one thing you can give to someone that you can never take away,” Rep. Laurie Schlegel (R-Metairie) said. “I think with our education outcomes, we are failing in this area.”

Schlegel, who sponsored a universal ESA bill, said that her single mother sacrificed a large share of her income to send her three daughters to parochial schools. Schlegel said every child in Louisiana should have the same opportunity, even if their families are unable to make that financial sacrifice.

The effort had the support of state superintendent of education Cade Brumley, an ardent advocate for school choice policies who said educational savings accounts could happily coexist with traditional public schools in an educational system that maximized parent choice.

“What we would envision, if one or more of these bills were to pass, would be the creation of a menu of services for families to choose from,” Brumley said. “Now, yes, it could be that they might use the dollars to enroll in a non-public school — it might be that they choose to use those dollars in other ways.”

But many parents with lingering frustrations over their public schools’ remote learning, COVID-19 policies and curriculum updates just saw ESAs as a way out — and a way to deliver a wake-up call to what they see as a failing system.

“We have been shouting from the rooftops how broken our public education system is,” Brandi Pew, founder of Unmask Our Children Louisiana, said. “We need something that lights a fire back in our public school system and to give them a desire to teach our children again.”

But any program that drives down enrollment could result in public schools getting burned.

The largest share of public funding for education is allocated on a per-pupil basis. Many schools and districts are already under-enrolled due to the pandemic and declining birth rates, and that has forced schools to figure out how to scale services to a smaller number of students, which is challenging when costs associated with facilities, transportation, salaries and insurance are fixed. What that often means is fewer dollars ultimately making their way to students and cuts to course offerings and extracurricular activities.

ESAs were well supported among Republican state lawmakers, who have commanding majorities in the House and Senate. But teachers' unions, a small but vocal number of Democratic lawmakers and Edwards — also a Democrat — all opposed the bills.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the bills did not account for the prohibitive costs for transportation or improved internet service that may have prevented low-income students from accessing different school options.

“Under most proposals, the cost allocated for non-public education and services would be insufficient to completely fund education for a full academic year,” Faulk said. “This will likely result in limiting access only to those families who can afford to supplement the remaining uncovered cost.”

Mary Patricia Wray, a longtime lobbyist and political strategist, set aside her professional duties and testified against the bills on behalf of her son with special needs. Private schools, even those that would receive public money from voucher and ESA programs, do not have the same obligation to serve any student who shows up seeking an education. This means that public schools are often the only full-service educational environment outside the home.

“The choices that are being advertised here in this committee are not accessible to many children in most districts in this state, either because they can’t be admitted to another [non-public school] choice or because they can’t get transported to another choice,” Wray said. “This bill does not close that gap. In fact, all it does is take resources away from children like mine.”

Facing that pushback and an unknown price tag, the sponsors of the bills consolidated their efforts and passed just two: One focused on students with special needs, and another on students reading below grade level. They pitched these scaled-back proposals as a proof of concept for larger educational savings account bills they hope to bring in the future.

All told, the bills that passed would have empowered more than 45,000 students to leave their public schools and take their share of state education funding with them.

The potential financial strain schools could face was the main reason Edwards cited when he vetoed both bills.

“This bill would potentially divert needed funds from public education without any consideration for need or income levels,” Edwards wrote in his veto message for Senate Bill 203,

Sen. Sharon Hewitt’s bill to create a publicly funded Education Savings Account program for children reading below grade level. “I believe we should do everything we can as a state to support public education, and this bill does not meet that standard.”

Edwards isn’t alone on this. While he may be at odds with Republican lawmakers, education researchers have their own concerns when it comes to ESA programs.

Doug Harris, an education researcher at Tulane University, said the bills’ proposed method for tracking student achievement, which would require non-public schools participating in the program to put students through a “norm-referenced” test of their choosing, would make it impossible to determine how students who utilize ESAs stack up against traditional public school students.

In the state’s public schools, students take the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP test, which allows the Department of Education to track students’ academic progress and rank school performance. In their original forms, the ESA bills would have had participating non-public schools administer the LEAP test too, but lawmakers amended the legislation to allow those schools to use the test of their choice after those schools complained that such a requirement would infringe on their ability to independently set their curriculum.

“It sounds like a middle ground at first until you realize what it actually implies about what you can learn about the school’s effectiveness,” Harris said. “To allow the school to choose the test is to essentially nullify or eliminate the test as a way of making comparisons.”

And unlike traditional voucher programs that are targeted at lower- and middle-income families, the ESA programs proposed in Louisiana would be open to anyone, but the legislation would not have required the state to collect socioeconomic or racial demographic data of the students and families who participated in the program.

Oscar Jimenez-Castellanos, an ESA researcher and visiting scholar at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said the approach taken in Louisiana is common in ESA programs across the country.

“This type of an ESA voucher program provides the most flexibility, yet the least accountability, and that’s not a good mix,” Jimenez-Castellanos said.

Jimenez-Castellanos’ research suggests that ESA programs in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee have effectively served as a subsidy for wealthier families to send their children to private schools since the amount of money awarded often isn’t enough to cover private school tuition in full or would steer students to underperforming private schools that cost less.

And the lack of meaningful data transparency in the ESA proposals in Louisiana fits into what Jimenez-Castellanos called a “worrisome” national trend.

During his in-depth study of the nation’s longest-running ESA program in Arizona, Jimenez-Castellanos said the state’s department of education has refused to make public the decade worth of data it collected on student achievement and how ESA dollars were spent. He said that doesn’t look good for groups who said the program would transform the state’s education system for the better.

“Instead of making this sort of a research or data-driven argument, it really is one that is very ideological,” Jimenez-Castellanos said.

That was reflected in the debate over ESAs at the capitol this year, with parents and school choice advocates arguing public schools had failed their kids, and the state should let them take their tax dollars to educate those kids elsewhere, but no real data was presented that said this action would lead to better results.

But politically, supporters of education savings accounts find themselves at an impasse.

Edwards has made it clear that he won’t sign any legislation that would devote public funds to private schools. And, at least for now, the GOP lawmakers pushing ESAs haven’t locked down quite enough votes to override Edwards’ vetoes. But once Edwards’ second term as governor is up, it's widely expected that next year he will be replaced by a Republican who would likely be more supportive of school choice initiatives like ESAs.

Lawmakers sponsoring the most sweeping educational savings accounts bills pulled them from consideration early in the legislative process, before heated debates of the possible cost and consequences of the programs could shape public opinion on the issue.

In a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee in April, Rep. Schlegel withdrew her universal ESA bill, saying she was willing to let other, more moderate legislation take effect first. She conceded that it could take years to pass a bill like hers.

“This has the potential to transform education in Louisiana,” Schlegel said in an interview shortly after shelving her bill. “We’re just not ready for it quite yet.”

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.