Is Louisiana Poised to Fund Students Instead of Schools?

Is Louisiana Poised to Fund Students Instead of Schools?
(Richard Alan Hannon/The Advocate via AP)

As Louisiana prepares for this year’s regular legislative session, a host of education reform bills appear to be on the table. But standing out apart from the crowd are measures that would give money to families rather than schools.

There are four bills being put forward by Republicans in the state that would create education savings accounts (ESAs) for students across the state, according to The Advocate.

DeVillier’s bill would allow education savings accounts for the families of children who have tried to transfer from low-performing public schools, students with one or more parents in the military or those in foster care.

It is House Bill 33.

State Reps. Mark Wright, R-Covington and Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, have filed proposals that would allow the accounts for special needs children.

They are House Bill 227 and House Bill 194 respectively.

Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, has filed an education savings account measure – House Bill 452 – that would apply to children who have been targeted for bullying.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, wants to allow the accounts for children who are reading below grade level – Senate Bill 203.

All four are good ideas. There is reportedly another bill to be filed that would cover all students in the state – totaling around 700,000 – that would be a dramatic reform of how education is funded in the state.

I would very much expect the unions to be opposed to all of these measures outright, and Louisiana’s lone statewide elected Democrat, John Bel Edwards, has been in their pocket from the start. When he hasn’t been offering up meager pay raises to teachers while the rest of the region offers up substantive pay increases for them, he has vetoed or had had minions in the legislature kill any meaningful education reform bills proposed in past years.

But this could be a different year. While a bill that offers ESAs to all students may not be able to get through, the other four proposals have the potential to draw bipartisan support.

Possibly anti-student Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (AP/Reuters Feed Library)

H.B. 33, H.B. 194, and H.B. 227 would have a major impact on students of color and help them get them out of schools that routinely underperform and get them into schools and classrooms with better rates of success. That brings a lot of the Legislative Black Caucus in the state legislature to the table and gets them involved in working for their constituents and improving their communities, something they are going to be pushing for more this year and next (more on that in a second).

So, three of the four (or potentially five) bills on the table can get bipartisan support and buck the teachers’ unions. It would give more power to parents and greater freedom to students who may be stuck in schools or even districts with bad scores.

There are two other ideas we’d need to see to make this work, however. The first is a bill that would allow students who live within a certain distance of their parish border to have the option to go to school in a neighboring district. You want them to have all options available. The option to go to a different district is currently open if the school is a select/non-zoned school (some magnet schools, for example) and for the families of currently-employed teachers.

The other is a bill or proposal that would increase funding for transportation. Some districts are struggling to find drivers and while in bigger cities you can partner with public transportation, in smaller communities you can’t. There are kids whose parents may not be able to get them to a better school. If a school is near your neighborhood and you can walk there, that’s what you do. But what if you want to go to a better-performing school but have no way to get there? Buses and drivers are already a struggle to find and finance, but you also have to deal with drawing up new bus routes to accommodate changes in enrollment. Extra funding for that would go a long way.

Now, there’s another reason why black Democrats in the legislature would want to jump on this. It helps their communities but also strengthens their hand in state politics. Right now, they look at their communities and constituents and see that white Democrats who have run the party for decades have not upheld their end of the bargain when it comes to working together. They have been neglecting black communities while keeping their own in power. That’s something that can bring the conservatives looking for education reform to the table with black Democrats and ensure a veto-proof majority.

That would be the ideal situation for students and families as the legislature begins its session this month.

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