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Education savings account bill passes in Louisiana House

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(The Center Square) – An expansive education savings account bill passed the Louisiana House of Representatives this week.

Companion legislation in the Senate is also progressing.

The legislation authored by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, would replace an existing voucher program for students in failing schools with a universal program in a three-phase program, covering those in poverty and with a disability first before extending to all students.

She said one of the advantages to Louisiana joining the 14 other states with education savings account programs later is that state officials could learn from the mistakes of early adopters and implement a program that takes advantage of what works in other states.

“This program will allow the money to truly follow the child and empower the parents to be able to choose the education that it is best for their child,” Emerson said. “I don’t believe this bill will shut down our public schools and nor is that my desire at all. I don’t believe there has been a single school closure in a state that has adopted an ESA program.”

The House passed the Giving All True Opportunity to Rise Scholarship Program, known as House Bill 745, by a 71-32 vote on Monday night.

Most of the questions about the bill centered around its cost and possible effects on public schools, especially when it comes to funding. There were also questions about whether students would take similar standardized tests as public school students.

According to the bill, that could be the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program test or any other exam approved by the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, suggested a pilot program in order to obtain test score comparisons.

“My concern right now is this program opens up universally and the money will be utilized by families already sending their kids to private and Catholic schools,” Willard said. “Maybe we should give it a couple of years and look at the data to see if it is working before opening it up and adding millions of dollars to the budget in reoccurring expenses?”

Emerson told Willard that the first two years would give lawmakers a chance to see if the program was working and whether they’d want to appropriate more funds.

According to a brief filed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, cost could be considerable at $520 million annually to provide a minimum scholarship of $5,190 per year for students who aren’t disabled ($15,099) or living in poverty ($7,550). Numbers from the Legislative Fiscal Office say it would cost about $297 million per year.

Those funds would have to be separate from the state’s constitutionally-mandated K-12 funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would also have to craft rules if signed into law.

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry praised the bill’s passage in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“We are thankful for policy champions in the House who have introduced and carried through this legislation, unlocking opportunities for children across the state,” Scott Simon, the state director of Americans For Prosperity, said in a statement. “Now, we hope the Senate will quickly take up the bill to ensure that no child is left behind in learning due to financial barriers or other circumstances.

“The pathway to education isn’t a one-way street, we must adopt policies like the GATOR Scholarship Program to give parents flexibility and affordability when choosing the learning environment that best suits their child’s individual needs.”

The companion legislation in the Senate, also called the LA GATOR Scholarship Program, was taken up by the Senate Finance Committee with amendments.

Senate Bill 313, authored by Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, will be taken up by the Finance Committee to give committee members time to digest the amendments.

Edmonds said he was “willing to work with anyone” on his bill.

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