School choice bill advances despite opposition of school boards

Published 7:11 am Wednesday, April 3, 2024

School boards throughout Southwest Louisiana oppose the Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise (La GATOR).

However, on Tuesday the bill advanced out of the appropriations committee.

The legislation, HB745, is spearheaded by Republican State Rep. Julie Emerson. It would allocate public education dollars for education savings accounts (ESA) that would fund private school education and other educational expenses for Louisiana students.

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The goal of the bill is to give parents a choice in where their children attend school, expanding their ability to accommodate their children’s educational needs

Those opposed to HB745 (and similar Senate legislation SB313) are concerned about the hefty price tag, possible oversight and the detriment to public school systems that are already underfunded.

According to research conducted by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, La GATOR could cost the state $520 million annually in the long term if it is fully funded and implemented. The worries surrounding the cost of the program are being heightened by the budget shortfall that is expected next year; the state is expected to see an estimated $650 million decline in tax revenue in the middle of 2025.

Last week, the bill advanced through the House Committee on Education unanimously. However, on Tuesday, April 2, HB745 faced legislative pushback by the House Appropriations Committee. While the bill was ultimately passed, the vote was divided with 13 in favor and eight in opposition.

Many committee members in opposition referenced pushback from constituents and education leaders in their districts.

Local Voices

In SWLA, boards have voiced their opposition to La GATOR, and several held special meetings last week to officially determine where they stand. The Allen, Beauregard, Cameron, Calcasieu and Vernon Parish school boards all voted to oppose the legislation.

The Cameron Parish School Board unanimously voted to oppose HB 745, and Superintendent Charley Lemons told the American Press that this is because while school choice is important, universal accountability is vital.

“We acknowledge the necessity of school choice under certain situations but adamantly believe that all schools, whether public, private or charter, should be held to the same set of standards.”

BPSB and CPSB’s reasoning for opposing the legislation is similar. The boards’ resolutions – which are nearly identical – state that HB 745 is a “renewed and concerted” effort by the state that would directly fund parents with “little to no oversight.”

The resolutions noted that the state has “failed to adequately fund K-12 education” while simultaneously enacting “accountability demands” that do not apply to public schools.

“Diverting public dollars to private schools and other programs educational saving accounts without fully funding public schools disadvantages our students and schools; and whereas providing public dollars to ESAs without requiring the same state accountability testing imposed on public school students is irresponsible public policy,” the CPSB resolution stated.

The stances of local school boards are at odds with 7th District BESE representative Kevin Berken. He and the board support both HB 745 and SB 133, he told The American Press.

He stated that while  SWLA’s public school system “in almost all cases, does an outstanding job of educating” students, one of BESE’s priorities is “preserving and strengthening” parents’ ability to choose schools for their children.

“Universal ESA’s ensure school choice options for all Louisiana families, empowering parents to select the educational environment that best suits their child. Expanded educational freedom leads to better academic outcomes and graduates who are better prepared for college or careers, and ESAs provide that freedom for families regardless of social or economic background.”

School choice is a goal that Berken campaigned on last year, and his support of La GATOR is based on the belief that “competition for students will make all schools better in the end.”

La GATOR Implementation

If passed, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will be tasked with developing implementation details for the 2025-26 school year – the first year of La GATOR.

In its first year, the scholarship program will only be available to students who are already enrolled in Louisiana’s existing voucher program, entering kindergarten, previously enrolled in public school or who are from a family that is below 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

Eligibility would expand to include students who live in households below 400 percent of the federal poverty guideline in the 2026-27 school year. In the 2027-28 school year, all families regardless of income will be eligible.