Louisiana House Backs Moving Public Money to Private Schools

BATON ROUGE (Louisiana Illuminator) —Public money for K-12 students in Louisiana is closer to being steered to private schools under a proposal the state House of Representatives approved Monday. All families, regardless of income, would eventually qualify for the program, despite questions about whether the state can afford the program in the long run. 

A similar Senate version of the proposal remains in committee, where the leadership might choose to slow its implementation.   

Representatives approved House Bill 745, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, with a 72-32 vote. It would allow the state to create education savings accounts (ESAs) for families who want to pull their students out of a public school and send them to a private institution. Reasons for removing a student could range from poor academic performance to bullying.

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ESAs have become a rallying cause for conservative Republicans in their attempts to reform public education, though Democrat Reps. Marcus Bryant of New Iberia and Jason Hughes of New Orleans voted for Emerson’s proposal.

Five GOP lawmakers went against the majority to oppose the bill: Reps. Larry Bagley of Stonewall, Brett Geymann of Lake Charles, Shane Mack of Livingston, Neil Riser of Columbia and Joe Stagni of Kenner.

Proponents have framed ESA as the hallmark of parental choice. Critics fear having state money follow students to private education will further deplete public schools already in need. Some rural lawmakers noted their districts don’t have any private options to offer public school students.

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In addition to private school tuition, the ESA money could be used for school uniforms, tutoring, textbooks and computers.

When fully implemented, the ESAs would provide $7,500 per year for each student from families with household incomes that don’t exceed 250% of federal poverty guidelines and at least $5,100 for all other enrollees, including those from wealthy households. The amount of the ESA increases to $15,000 for students with special needs.

During the first year of the program in 2025-2026, students in Louisiana’s existing school voucher program would be prioritized for an ESA, but by year three, it would be open to any household, including people who are wealthy.  The voucher program, which serves 5,600 children, would also be eliminated after ESAs go into effect.”

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 According to fiscal notes attached to the proposal, the ESA program — branded as Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise (LA GATOR) — its first year cost will be $41.7 million based on the switchover of current voucher holders. It could climb to $258 million in year two, when 41,425 students are expected to participate.

The Louisiana Department of Education said participation levels are “too uncertain to develop an accurate projection” for 2028-29, the first academic year when savings accounts would be available universally. The Legislative Fiscal Office placed its annual cost at nearly $260 million — a number the Public Affairs Research Council considers a low-ball estimate. It puts the annual cost at $520 million once the program is open to all families.

Emerson has deflected those cost concerns, saying lawmakers will ultimately decide how much — or how little — money they would put toward the program. A House floor amendment to her bill allows the LA GATOR program to launch only if lawmakers provide money for it.

During Monday’s debate on the House floor, Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, suggested universal adoption of LA GATOR be delayed until enough data from low-income and special needs recipients could be measured to determine its success. 

“I think that’s inherently what we’re doing with the phase-in,” Emerson said.

Hughes delivered the most impassioned speech in support of Emerson’s bill on the House floor. He told colleagues he would like to see low-income families prioritized in the program, saying he would seek such standards when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education makes rules for its implementation.

“But what I will not do in this moment, as I watch children in poverty trapped in failing schools who can hardly read, I’ll be damned if I continue to defend the status quo,” Hughes said.

Also on Monday, the Senate Finance Committee reviewed multiple amendments to Senate Bill 313, another version of the LA GATOR program, but chose to wait until next week to vote on the changes.

The bill’s author, Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, is proposing to allow home-schoolers receive ESA dollars. Emerson’s version does not include them.

Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, wants to require any public school that accepts ESA money to use the same standardized test as public schools when measuring transfer student progress. In Emerson’s bill, private schools are allowed to use a test that matches their curriculum.

Jackson-Andrews is also calling for those private schools to be graded on the same A-F scale used to evaluate public schools, with any that fail for three years in a row eliminated from receiving future ESA proceeds for at least a year.

Sen. Glen Womack, R- Harrisonburg, has proposed adding language similar to what Emerson placed on her bill, making ESAs contingent on legislative funding. He also wants a survey conducted in each parish to determine how many students might qualify for the program. Its results would be due Dec. 1.

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, indicated Monday he will approach the ESA proposals cautiously. State senate leaders from other states stressed in a conference call last week that their consensus on ESAs was “the speed at which you implement them is very important,” he said at a Baton Rouge Press Club luncheon.

Henry described Louisiana’s version as “a little aggressive in putting everything together before we know we actually want to do it.” Lawmakers would have to closely consider details before putting an ESA program in place, he said.

“Once you start this program, it’s hard to pull it back.”

By Greg LaRose and Julie O’Donoghue

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