ESAs to make a comeback in ‘24

Conservatives have been railing against public schools, largely to no avail, for years now. When a new Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature meets next year, however, school choice has the best chance ever in our state to pass both houses and there’s no reason to think Governor-elect Landry won’t sign it.
Sen. John Kennedy is the latest official to say it’s time for school choice in Louisiana. Kennedy said 11% of public school funding comes from the federal government, 44% from the state and 45% from local taxpayers. He knows local dollars stay with the local school system but said the state and federal money can be used to follow the student by letting parents use vouchers to pick their own schools.
A new drive is underway that would allow students to opt out of classrooms and take the money with them. What used to be called vouchers are now called education savings accounts (ESAs). These ESAs exist in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
State Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, who is expected to be the next Speaker of the Louisiana House, sponsored educational savings accounts bills in 2021 and 2022. His 2021 bill passed the House 96-1 but died in the Senate Finance Committee. DeVillier’s 2022 bill would have offered ESAs to children of military families, those in foster care and students attending D- or F-rated public schools that had been denied a transfer to a higher-rated school. His legislation passed the House 75-26 but also died in the Senate Finance Committee.
A 2022 bill by Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, offered ESAs to students with disabilities such as deafness, blindness, or autism. It passed the House 90-2 and the Senate 31-0 but was vetoed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Edwards in his veto message said the bill would divert needed funds from public education, didn’t provide accountability and didn’t clearly provide for the students who might qualify for the program.
ESAs in 2022 were supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, the Pelican Institute, and the American Federation for Children. They were opposed by the Louisiana Association of Educators and the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents. The Center Square in 2022 quoted DeVillier who said, “(His) House Bill 33 is about one thing: It’s about giving parents more choices to meet the needs of our future, giving them the best chance to succeed.”
An official with the Pelican Institute said the ESAs were based only on the state’s portion of per-pupil funding and didn’t impact local or federal funding. The National Conference of State Legislatures said at least 31 states considered legislation on ESAs and vouchers in 2023, and NCSL is tracking nearly 100 bills on this type of school choice.
As speaker, DeVillier will be in a great position to push for school choice once again. If he is successful, families would have access to the state’s share of annual school aid to help pay to place their children in the school of their choice. The result may be the most significant change to the way Louisiana educates its children since integration.
There is a downside to school choice in Louisiana, however. Historically, our school choice advocates have been loath to include accountability measures in their school choice legislation, so there’s no way to know what kind of education students are getting or whether they’re even getting an education, at all. Parents, they say, can make that call for themselves.
School choice is, fundamentally, about giving parents more control over their children’s education. Parents who use this power wisely will see their children grow and prosper. Those who squander it by placing their children in sub-par schools in a misguided effort to shield them from some imagined indoctrination shouldn’t make plans to repurpose their children’s bedrooms after graduation, because they may be living at home for quite some time.

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