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Louisiana may fund private school for students rich and poor with education savings accounts

Greg Hilburn, Shreveport Times

Louisiana could begin paying for any student, rich or poor, to attend private schools as momentum for legislation creating education savings accounts builds in both the state House and Senate to fulfill one of Republican Gov. Jeff Landry's top priorities.

"This will truly allow money to follow the child and allow parents to choose the best education for their children," said Republican Lafayette Rep. Julie Emerson Tuesday when presenting her House Bill 745 in the House Education Committee, which advanced the measure favorably with no objections.

Senate Bill 313, a duplicate measure by Baton Rouge Republican Sen. Rick Edmonds, cleared the Senate Education Committee last week.

"Let us send a loud and clear message that a parent is the most important voice in a child's education," Landry said during his speech to open the Legislative Session. "We should put parents back in control and let the money follow the child."

The education savings account program could cost the state $258 million in new spending by its third year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. By comparison, Louisiana's popular scholarship program TOPs, which is a merit-based program, is expected to cost $307 million this year.

EdChoice, a pro-school choice nonprofit organization, estimates the program could cost $358 million by the third years and an analysis by the Public Research Council of Louisiana estimates the program could cost more than $500 million annually over the long haul.

Louisiana currenty funds a voucher program in which the state pays for students to attend private schools if they are stuck in public schools that are rated C, D or F schools. The voucher program currently covers private school tuition for about 6,000 students at an annual cost of $45 million.

In the voucher program, the state funding is sent directly to the private schools, but in the proposed universal education saving account program the public money will go directly to the parents and can be used for tuition, tutoring, transportation to schools, technology or other education-related expenses like uniforms.

Annual education savings account awards would be $5,100 for students from higher income families, $7,500 for students from lower income families and $15,000 for students with special needs.

There are about 116,000 Louisiana students currently enrolled in private schools.

Emerson said 14 other states have implemented education savings account programs.

If the Legislature passes the program and Landry signs it into law it would be phased in over three years beginning during the 2025-2026 school year favoring current voucher students and lower-income students in the first year before making everyone eligible in the third year.

"At the end of the day who pays the tax dollars?" Emerson said. "We do. The parents do."

But opponents fear the program will drain resources from the public school system and question whether private schools will be held to the same standard as public schools.

"How can we ensure the money follow the child to a school that's not failing?" said Democratic LaPlace Rep. Sylvia Elaine Taylor, who said the program will create a "double-standard."

Though the money used to fund private tuition won't come directly from current public school funding, some expressed concern that it would cause more parents to pull their children from the public system, even from top-rated schools, which would dimish public school funding that is based on the number of students enrolled.

"I don't believe this bill will shut down public schools and that's not my intention," Emerson said. "I don't envision a lot of students will leave high performing schools, but some will."

But Melissa Flournoy with the 10,000 Women organization said the new program is sending "the message that public schools don't work and that we need to move people out of public schools."

"My concern is we're not investing in public education to make sure every child has those same advantages," Flournoy said.

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the state's public school board, supports the program and the Louisiana School Boards Association has temporarily dropped its opposition while it works with Emerson to address concerns.


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