By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor
(The Center Square) — A bill to expand educational options to special student populations cleared the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, moving the measure one step closer to reality.
Committee members voted unanimously to approve House Bill 33, sponsored by Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, to create education savings accounts (ESAs) equal to the average per pupil state funding parents can use for tuition, tutoring, and educational services and supplies necessary to meet their child’s educational needs outside of the public education system.
The bill would create an ESA program restricted to children of military families, children in foster care and those attending schools with D and F ratings who have been denied a transfer to better performing schools.
The bill is among several to create ESAs that cleared the House Education Committee last week, and lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee on Monday vetted the financial aspects of HB 33.
Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, questioned why the fiscal note for the bill includes two administrative positions — a education program consultant at an annual salary of $82,000 plus benefits, and budget manager at $72,000 plus benefits — as well as a 5% administrative cost to administer the program.
“When looking across the country, states that have implemented ESAs, you see that they take a percentage off the top, anywhere from 5% to a high of 10% to be able to do this. Mississippi, our neighbor, does 6%,” said Ethan Melancon, director of government affairs for the Louisiana Department of Education. “The reason for the 5% is so we can identify a vendor, which the bill allows us to do, to be able to execute this work.
“It allows us to go up to 5%, meaning we could use less than that if necessary,” he said. “The reason why it’s 5% is because we want to make sure we can implement this with fidelity, and to make sure we can cover the costs of the program.”
Melancon said the two staff positions would be tasked with overseeing the vendor and to ensure necessary budget auditing, and would eventually be absorbed into the 5%.
Any money left over from the 5% would be rolled back into the account for student ESAs, he said.
Hughes also highlighted concerns the bill would negatively impact local school budgets, but DeVillier clarified the legislation would only divert the state’s portion of student funding, leaving local and federal dollars with the public school.
“So that would actually increase the available funds to be able to educate the children that stay in the public school setting, and it would also help the student-teacher ratio, as well,” DeVillier said.
The bill would provide ESAs as an option to about 11,000 students of military families and 3,000 foster students in the state, while data on the number of students in D or F schools who have been denied a transfer is not available, DeVillier said.
Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, questioned how ESA funds would be handled if students return to public schools, and DeVillier clarified the money would follow the child. Melancon said state officials would promulgate rules to facilitate that process.
Lawmakers also discussed how the bill would impact students who need special services.
Officials with the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents and the Louisiana School Boards Association testified in opposition to HB 33, citing concerns about the impact on low-income students and funding for public schools. The state’s teachers unions also opposed the bill in the House Education Committee.
Hughes questioned why the organizations did not oppose a virtually identical bill that cleared the House and Senate committees last year, and representatives from both groups pointed to COVID concerns as a distracting factor.
Hughes noted both groups provided positions on numerous other bills last session, despite the pandemic.
HB 33 now moves to the full House for consideration.