Louisiana Legislature Gives Landry a Win With State Money for Private Schools

Once that amount is calculated, it will still be up to lawmakers to decide how much public money to put into the program.

Gov. Jeff Landry addresses the Louisiana Legislature at the start of its special session on redistricting and election matters Jan. 15, 2024, at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge. (Michael Johnson/The Advocate, Pool)

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A proposal to steer state dollars for K-12 public school students to private schools of their choice advanced Thursday from the Louisiana Senate, a week after members forced its author to sideline the measure.

In response, Republican Gov. Jeff Landry starred in a television ad campaign and asked citizens to contact state senators and tell them to vote for the LA GATOR education savings account (ESA) program. The governor was on the Senate chamber sidelines, taking time to talk to multiple lawmakers, before Senate Bill 313 was approved in a 24-15 vote.

“I don’t feel like it’s a big win for me,” Landry told the Illuminator after the vote. “I think it’s a big win for the kids of Louisiana, for parents out there who overwhelmingly, irrespective of party affiliation or economic means, have said in poll after poll after poll that the money should follow the child.”

In addition to the governor’s influence, sizable changes to the proposal’s financial framework were made Thursday. The updated version shifts the task of figuring out how much state funds will be needed for the ESA program from legislators to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE). Once that amount is calculated, it will still be up to lawmakers to decide how much public money to put into the program.

“Let (BESE) do that, you know, then you don’t chip it in stone,” said Sen. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, who authored the amendments approved Thursday. “… I’d rather give BESE the flexibility to determine how much they think that money should be.”

For the time being, there is a question mark over how much education savings accounts will cost the state once they are made available to all students, regardless of household income.

The bill still calls for the program to be launched for the 2025-26 school year, meaning the Legislature would have to determine during next year’s session how much money they want to put into ESA.

The initial participants will be current voucher recipients in the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program in addition to special education students and public school students from families that earn less than 250% of the federal poverty level. Based on federal poverty standards as of March, the qualifying income for a family of four would be under $62,400.

The Educational Excellence Program, enacted in 2008, provides private school tuition vouchers for students from low-income families who attend poor-performing schools. Some 5,500 students received the vouchers in the 2022-23 school year, and the program will lapse once LA GATOR is operating.

In year two of the program, the qualifying family income threshold will be 400% of the poverty level, which is below $124,800 for a family of four.

Education savings accounts would be made available to all families in year three, when the associated cost is projected to soar.

In the bill’s original version, the ESA program would have cost the state $260 million annually once any student could take part, according to the Legislature’s fiscal staff. An independent projection from the Public Affairs Research Council placed the amount closer to $520 million annually.

That uncertain yet sizable sum made some fiscal conservatives, who otherwise support the idea of school choice, wary of voting for the legislation.

“The dollar amount is still a concern,” Talbot said. “That’s our fiduciary responsibility to the state. That never goes away.”

Those cost concerns, along with an unwanted school accountability amendment, led the bill’s author, Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, to temporarily shelve his measure last week. But Talbot’s changes included removing a stipulation that any student who uses an ESA be administered the same high-stakes testing required of public school students.

Results from the tests would have measured whether schools that accepted ESA students were spending state money effectively, with substandard private schools no longer being allowed to accept state money.

Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, authored last week’s amendment and objected to its removal Thursday.

“I’ve never understood why someone would be afraid of accountability for a great idea,” Jackson-Andrews said, adding that the lack of testing might signify doubts among ESA supporters in the program’s potential for success.

In place of Jackson-Andrews’ accountability provision, the revised bill allows — but doesn’t require — private schools to test ESA students on math and English language arts. The Louisiana Educational Assessment Program test public school students are required to take includes sections for English, math, science and social studies.

After her week-old amendment was removed, Jackson-Andrews submitted a proposal to align ESA accountability standards with the system in place for current voucher recipients. She excluded any punitive measures for schools whose ESA students perform poorly on assessments.

Edmonds argued that existing standardized tests at private schools will sufficiently measure the progress of ESA students. Jackson-Andrews maintained that private schools shouldn’t be allowed to pick their own assessments, but her amendment was rejected.

A blunted third attempt from Jackson-Andrews to insert accountability measures into the bill was successful. It calls for any assessment standards the state education department adopts to apply to every school in the state, but it doesn’t single out ESA students for separate evaluations.

Although lawmakers won’t make funding decisions on the ESA program until next year, they might help decide where the money might come from sooner. The 144 members of the Legislature and 27 appointees by the governor will take part in a constitutional convention from Aug. 1-15, based on organizing legislation that awaits Senate approval.

Landry and proponents of the event haven’t provided agenda specifics, but removing constitutional protections from certain funding streams is expected to be a priority.

The Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), which provides funding for Louisiana’s K-12 public schools, is one of those protected sources, but Landry has said it wouldn’t be touched during the constitutional rewrite.

The state will provide nearly $4.1 billion to public schools next academic year based on the MFP formula lawmakers are supporting.

Piper Hutchinson contributed to this report.

Louisiana Illuminator is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Louisiana Illuminator maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Greg LaRose for questions: info@lailluminator.com. Follow Louisiana Illuminator on Facebook and Twitter.

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