Jim Beam column: School choice was big winner

Published 6:40 am Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Conservative public officials and some syndicated newspaper columnists don’t like public schools. When a new Republican-dominated Louisiana Legislature meets next year, you can bet school choice will be a major topic.

U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, is the latest official to say it’s time for school choice in Louisiana. Nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas recently accused public schools of minimizing fundamental subjects like reading, math, science, and history “in favor of a progressive world view.”

Much of what we hear these spokespersons say about what is being taught in public schools, particularly the schools in this part of the country, simply isn’t happening. However, they want people to believe it because it’s politically popular if they do.

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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.

The Advocate in a 2022 news report said a new drive was 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).

The newspaper said those accounts would give families access to the state’s share of annual school aid —around $5,500 per year — to help pay for private school tuition, tutoring services, supplemental materials, or technological devices.

Educational savings accounts 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.

There is a downside to school choice. The Associated Press reported that there’s no way to tell what kind of education students are getting or whether they’re even getting an education at some unapproved schools. It said over 21,000 Louisiana students are enrolled in the state’s off-the-grid school system.

The Advocate said DeVillier will lead the House effort to push the conservative issues favored by Republican Gov.-elect Jeff Landry and move the state to the right politically. 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 for school choice.

Based on what Cal Thomas, Sen. Kennedy and others are saying about school choice, Louisiana may be in for a major shakeup in how it conducts its educational system. Let’s hope that whatever happens still makes it possible for students to receive a quality education and continue to be the state’s No. 1 concern.