Louisiana House Education Committee approves several school choice bills

(The Center Square) — The House Education Committee advanced several school choice bills that would create education savings accounts parents can use for educational options outside of the public school system.

The committee voted along party lines to approve House bills 33, 194, 452, and 824 to create education savings accounts (ESAs) with 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.

HB 33, sponsored by Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, would create an ESA program for children of military families, children in foster care and those attending schools with D and F ratings under the state accountability system.

HB 194, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, would do the same for students with disabilities such as deafness, blindness or autism. HB 452, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, would extend ESAs as an option for students who have documented at least two instances of bullying, or any student who is the victim of sexual assault.

HB 824, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Jefferson, would provide ESAs as an option to all Louisiana students.

“I support all of the ESAs for all of the reasons given, but I think we should give all our children an opportunity for the best education,” Schlegel said. “When one out of four schools is a D or an F, you aren’t giving your kids an education.”

Proponents of the bills argued that all parents deserve the right to direct the education of their children, and many public schools do not provide educational services that best meet their needs.

All lawmakers who presented the bills repeatedly stressed that increasing options through ESAs would allow parents to more efficiently direct education funding to improve outcomes for students.

Democrats on the committee raised questions on how state education officials will hold service providers approved for ESAs accountable for student performance, and questioned whether the programs would divert dollars from public schools.

Bill sponsors clarified that schools and other service providers participating in the programs would be required to administer standardized tests to gauge student improvement, and pointed out that only the state portion of student funding would follow the student, leaving federal and local funding in place.

As a result, schools could actually see an increase in funds available per student, which means more resources for students who remain.

“The (education) department will be required to send us a report that tells us the total number of students participating in the program, a list of all participating schools and service providers, total student enrollment for each participating school, aggregate test result data on participating students, percentage of funds used for each type of qualified education expense, an analysis of the program’s fiscal impact on the state and on local public school systems,” Freilberg said.

“We’ll get that report every year,” she said, “that’s accountability to us.”

All of the bills were supported by the American Federation for Children, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, while specific ESA bills gained support from groups representing foster families, victims of sexual assault and bullying, and parents of students in public schools.

The bills were opposed by interests representing the traditional public school system, including the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, New Orleans Public Schools, the Louisiana Association of Educators, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and Louisiana Save Our Schools.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley testified for information on the bills, but did not support or oppose the measures.

“The Department of Education believes that parental choice expands opportunities for kids, and we should not be limiting opportunities we should be expanding them,” he said.

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