Saturday, May 18, 2024

Louisiana Senate committee advances universal education savings account bill

by BPT Staff
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(The Center Square) – Universal education savings accounts for families with schoolchildren could get a vote on the floor of the Louisiana Senate as soon as Monday.

Legislation to create the accounts advanced from the Education Committee in the chamber this week.

Giving All True Opportunity to Rise Scholarship Program, authored by Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, passed 5-2. It would replace an existing voucher program for students in low-performing school districts with an accountability grade of C, D or F, known as the Student Scholarships for Excellence Program. It allows 7,000 students the ability to study at 120 participating private schools statewide.

A similar bill, House Bill 745, is sponsored by state Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, and she testified with Edmonds in support of his bill. Last year, then-Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a bill that would’ve created an education savings account program for children with special needs.

The program that would be administered by the state Department of Education would be a wide-ranging one, allocating the state per-student cost plus a special education weight of 150% for those children to parents for qualifying education expenses such as tuition. Payments would roll over if any are left over at year’s end.

“We’re taking a look at what is working in multiple states around the country and we’re taking a look at the future of the state of Louisiana,” Edmonds told his committee. “Every economic indicator, we ask why are people leaving Louisiana? What do people choose to do when they come to Louisiana? There’s always multiple areas of criteria, but everyone includes, ‘How is your education program?’

“This is not an education bill. This is an opportunity to more than move the needle. This is a generational opportunity we have before us. With this legislation, we put the power back in the hands of parents when it comes to their child’s education.”

According to this year’s calculation of the Minimum Foundation Program, the state’s funding formula, the base student cost is $4,015.

Louisiana Public Affairs Research Council CEO Steven Procopio told the committee that while his organization supports school choice, including the voucher program and charter schools, there are some fiscal concerns with the bill.

He said the program, according to his organization’s calculations, could add up to about $560 million annually. The proposed K-12 budget is nearly $7.33 billion for the upcoming fiscal year, with $4.23 billion coming from state sources.

If Gov. Jeff Landry signs the bill into law, it would begin in March 2025. Twelve states have similar programs.

Edmonds also said that out of 26 studies on how school choice programs competing with public school systems affect student achievement outcomes, 24 showed a positive effect on all student outcomes.

Landry supports the bill and would likely sign it into law after one of his staffers filed a card in support of it. Also supporting the bill were the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Pelican Institute, Americans for Prosperity and the Louisiana Association of Business Educators.

Danny Garrett, the president of the Louisiana School Boards Association, spoke out against the bill, saying that removal of accountability testing is an issue for his organization.

“There were promises made to this Legislature about a decade ago about what we call the voucher program and some caveats were put on that,” Garrett said. “The students would take the same accountability tests as public school students, so that we could compare whether they were getting as good or better education than public school students.”

He said the latest report for the voucher program showed that the average performance grade was F. Under the voucher program, participating schools that don’t meet academic standards are prohibited from enrolling new scholarship students.

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