(The Center Square) – A leading Louisiana school choice advocate is touting education savings accounts as a way to help school children regain lost ground and permanently improve the state’s educational framework.
Statewide student assessment results released last month showed K-12 school children have fallen behind amid two years of natural disasters and COVID-19 instabilities. As a result, the Department of Education announced its “Louisiana Comeback” plan, which is accompanied by record taxpayer funding.
“Louisiana school systems have received about $4 billion dollars of stimulus funds to support efforts like these, and we need to use our one-time resources well,” State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said about the department’s student recovery agenda. “We must utilize the dollars to get us through this tough time and prepare our state to be better post-pandemic.”
The New Orleans-based Pelican Institute has advocated for fiscal transparency and school choice reforms. Daniel Erspamer, the organization’s CEO, recently said education savings accounts (ESAs) should be included in the rebuilding mission.
“In order for Louisiana to see a real comeback story, it can’t continue doing and funding the same things over and over again,” Erspamer said. “Simply putting more money into the same system and strategies will do little to achieve greatly improved outcomes, which were sorely needed even before COVID and the natural disasters of 2020 and 2021.”
Louisiana traditionally outspends neighboring states on a per-pupil funding basis, while registering some of the lowest performance outcomes in the country. According to U.S. News and World Report, Louisiana’s K-12 public education system ranks 46th out of 50 states.
Lawmakers and education leaders could help “break the mold,” Erspamer said, by introducing ESAs for children and families who want more options than what currently exists.
The reform initiative would provide parents and legal guardians of eligible students with government-authorized savings accounts to pay for various educational items, including private school tuition.
If a qualifying student is withdrawn from their geographically assigned public school, public education money would be deposited into the student’s approved account. The purpose is to allow tax dollars to follow students rather than stay at designated schools where they are no longer enrolled.
Other approved expenditures include virtual school, tutoring, instructor tuition, curriculum materials and special education services for students with disabilities.
Teachers’ unions and traditional public school advocates oppose ESAs for diverting funding away from the public education system, which is open to all students. In a whitepaper, the American Federation of Teachers called ESAs “vouchers that can be used more widely than just at private schools.”
The National Education Association (NEA) has referred to the savings accounts as a tool to privatize education by transferring “public money to the private sector without accountability or transparency.”
The NEA’s “Policy Playbook for Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration” criticizes ESAs for siphoning scarce public resources and “weakening the wall of separation between church and state,” because of the religious nature of some private schools.
Multiple states have implemented the school choice program or taken legislative steps in their direction, including Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina and Tennessee. According to Education Next, a nonpartisan reform journal, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire all advanced ESA reforms this year.
A bill that would have created education savings accounts in Louisiana was introduced during the 2021 regular legislative session by Rep. Phillip R. DeVillier, R-Eunice. The measure – House Bill 556 – would have established the program for children of military families and children in foster care. It died in the Senate Finance Committee after passing the state House, 96-1.
ESAs don’t just allow more choice, according to the Pelican Institute, but they provide low- and middle-income families an opportunity to attend private schools and experience educational options that may be financially out of reach.
“We must enact bigger, bolder reforms to give them what they need to be successful. Their future depends on it,” Erspamer said.