Monday, June 17, 2024

Education savings account bill shelved for now in Louisiana Senate

by BPT Staff
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BY: GREG LAROSE – Louisiana Illuminator

A proposal that could have eventually let any Louisiana family with students in public schools use state money for private education was pulled before it could get Senate vote Wednesday evening, though lawmakers could bring it up next week for reconsideration.

Lawmakers have yet to provide any funding for what proponents label education savings accounts (ESAs), perhaps an indication of waning support for the legislation.

The bill’s author, Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, also failed to fight off a Senate floor amendment Wednesday that would require students using ESAs to take end-of-course exams to evaluate their progress. The results would have been used as an accountability measure for private schools that accepted the money.

The amendment, from Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, was approved in a 20-18 vote. With eight Republican senators in support of the change, the writing on the wall became unfavorable for the passage of Edmonds bill.

“My heart hurts for the thousands of students in Louisiana that are failing,” Edmonds said just before returning his bill to the Senate calendar. It would allow him to bring the bill back up before the session ends June 3.

Before Edmonds’ decision, Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, said on the Senate floor that members might want to ponder the bill over the weekend, hinting that the choice to pull the measure before a vote had already been made.

The Senate has adjourned for the week and will reconvene Monday.

A comparable House version of the bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Committee on Education, which Edmonds chairs. It has lain dormant since mid-April. One notable difference between the two is that Edmonds’ bill would provide education savings account access to home-school students.

An independent estimate has placed the cost of the education savings account measure, called the Louisiana Giving All The Opportunity to Rise (LA GATOR) Scholarship Program, at $520 million once open to all families. Some lawmakers had begun to publicly fret its huge impact on the state budget ahead of a substantial projected revenue drop. Starting June 30, 2025, the expiration of a 0.45% portion of the state sales tax will create a nearly $560 million dip in revenues.

In its current version, Edmonds’ bill calls on the state education department and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to compile a study of “educational resources” at all Louisiana K-12 schools that receive state funding, with the results due Dec. 1. With the study providing a better idea of the program’s cost, BESE and the state would then create the rules to implement LA GATOR.

Edmonds’ proposal calls for the state’s existing private school voucher program to lapse once an ESA program in place, and these students would become the first-year participants in LA GATOR. The vouchers currently pay for about 5,600 K-12 students from low-income families at poor performing public schools to attend private schools.

The following year, the program would be open to kindergarten and existing public school students from families with income at or below 400% of the federal poverty guidelines, which was $31,200 for a family of four as of March 1.

As written now, Edmonds’ bill doesn’t provide a start date for “universal” ESAs that would be available to students regardless of their family income. It’s this uncertainty, in part, that has some conservatives apprehensive.

“Putting our toe in the door with this, it’s going to be back with more and more demands for revenue that, everyone agrees, is not going to be what it has the last couple of years,” Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, said.

Edmonds has faced arguments from ESA opponents who see them as taking state resources from fiscally stretched public schools and directing it to private education. Nonpublic schools aren’t required to provide special education services that are required of public schools in state and federal law, ESA critics noted.

During Senate debate on the bill, Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, offered multiple alternatives for what the acronym ESA represents, including experimental spending accounts.

“Experimental, because we don’t know what the result is. It seems like it’s something that’s trending,” Duplessis said.

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