Louisiana Legislature approves state funding for private schools, a victory for Landry

A motion to allocate state funds for K-12 public school students to private schools of their choosing progressed on Thursday from the Louisiana Senate after the measure’s author was pressured by members to set it aside last week.

Following this, Republican Governor Jeff Landry was featured in a TV commercial urging citizens to reach out to state senators and urge them to support the LA GATOR education savings account (ESA) program. Before Senate Bill 313 was endorsed with a 24-15 vote, the governor engaged with various legislators in the Senate chamber.

Governor Landry expressed, “I view this as a victory not just for me but for the children of Louisiana, and for parents who, across party lines and economic backgrounds, have consistently stated in various polls that funds should follow the child.”

Alongside the governor’s advocacy, substantial modifications to the financial structure of the proposal were implemented on Thursday. The new version transfers the responsibility of determining the necessary state funding for the ESA program from lawmakers to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Once this calculation is made, legislators will still be tasked with determining the allocation of public funds for the program.

Senator Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who sponsored the approved amendments, emphasized, “Let (BESE) handle that, so we have flexibility and aren’t locked into a fixed amount.”

Currently, the projected cost of education savings accounts to the state when available to all students, irrespective of household income, remains uncertain.

The plan envisions the program being initiated in the 2025-26 school year, necessitating legislative decisions on the funding allocation during the upcoming session.

Initially, the program will include existing voucher recipients in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program, special education students, and public school students from families earning below 250% of the federal poverty level, which equates to under $62,400 for a family of four based on current federal poverty standards.

The Educational Excellence Program, established in 2008, issues private school tuition vouchers to students from low-income households attending underperforming schools. In the 2022-23 school year, 5,500 students availed of the vouchers, which will phase out upon the launch of LA GATOR.

In the second year of the program, the income threshold for eligibility will be raised to 400% of the poverty level, equivalent to below $124,800 for a family of four.

By the third year, education savings accounts will be accessible to all families, anticipating a substantial increase in associated costs.

Initially estimated to cost the state $260 million annually when made available to all students, the ESA program posed financial concerns for some fiscal conservatives, despite their support for school choice. An independent analysis projected an annual cost closer to $520 million, further exacerbating these worries.

Senator Talbot emphasized, “The financial aspect remains a concern as it is our obligation to the state.”

Amidst financial apprehensions and an unwanted amendment relating to school accountability, Senator Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, briefly set aside the bill last week. However, subsequent amendments by Senator Talbot, including the removal of mandatory high-stakes testing for ESA students, prompted the bill’s revival.

Senator Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, who introduced the accountability amendment last week, expressed disappointment over its withdrawal on Thursday.

In place of stringent accountability measures, private schools are now permitted but not obligated to assess ESA students in math and English language arts. This contrasts with the standardized testing requirements for public school students under the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program.

Despite these changes, Jackson-Andrews fought to reintroduce accountability standards, which eventually garnered support. The revised measure mandates that any assessment criteria adopted by the state education department should apply uniformly to all schools, without singling out ESA students.

While decisions on funding for the ESA program are postponed until next year, discussions on potential funding sources might commence sooner during a constitutional convention involving legislators and governor-appointed members from August 1-15.

Although details on the convention’s agenda are scarce, the removal of constitutional protections from certain funding channels is anticipated, with assurances from Landry that the protected Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding for K-12 public schools will remain untouched during the constitutional revision.

According to lawmakers endorsing the MFP formula, the state is slated to allot nearly $4.1 billion to public schools in the upcoming academic year.

Piper Hutchinson contributed to this report.

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