Saturday, July 20, 2024

Louisiana GATOR Scholarship program passes House Appropriations Committee

by BIZ Magazine

By Elizabeth White | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE—Parents in Louisiana would receive from $5,000 to $15,000 in state money to send their children to private schools under a Landry administration bill that is moving through the State Legislature.

The Louisiana GATOR Scholarship program passed the House Appropriations Committee in a 13-8 vote Tuesday despite concerns over cost and implementation. 

The bill, proposed by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, would create an Education Savings Account that will allow families to apply for state funding to send their children to private schools of their choice. 

The bill passed the House Education Committee unanimously last week. Critics are concerned that it would cost taxpayers several hundred million dollars a year, weaken public school systems and reduce educational accountability.

Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican, has ordered state agencies to tighten spending and has expressed concern about the possible loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue when a portion of the state sales tax expires next year.

The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates that the education savings accounts could cost the state more than $250 million a year by the third year. Outside experts have estimated that the program could eventually add $350 million to $500 million a year to taxpayer costs.

Under the bill, funding levels would range from $5,100 for students in higher-income families to $15,000 for special needs children.

Emerson touted the idea, saying: “There might be a group of students in some of those schools that their needs are just not being met and they’d like to seek other options, but they can’t afford it and this will help them afford it,” said Emerson. 

For the first year of the program, supporters are requesting $1.8 million for setup costs, which includes contracting a vendor to create digital wallets for parents to access their accounts.

In the second and third year the costs will increase depending on student and school enrollment in the program. 

“It’s going to be estimates, and we won’t really know until students start applying,” said Emerson. “So that’s going to be a decision for this Legislature in the coming years as far as the amount that’s appropriated for the program.” 

Some members of the Appropriations Committee had concerns about the unknown costs as well as how the program will be implemented and who will monitor how participants use the funds.

“We have children that will never be able to afford education, and that’s part of the reason that we’re at the bottom of everything is because we have poor people that cannot afford to do that,” said Rep. Larry Bagley, R-Stonewall. “And I’m not sure that giving people money basically because you asked for it, you’re not happy, is going to be an answer to this question.” 

Emerson said the bill has safeguards, such as having the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education oversee the program and create regulations and have the program be audited yearly to ensure it runs smoothly. 

Steven Procopio, resident of the Public Affairs Research Council, a non-partisan policy group, raised concerns about what would happen if the appropriated funds were not enough to cover all the families who want to participate. 

“Is it a first-come, first-choice?” said Procopio. “I’ve heard that as a possibility. I would be concerned about that because then potentially wealthier families would have access to it. I don’t know what that would look like proportionally. I’m concerned about that.” 

However, he said this could be fixed by rules implemented by BESE, such as allowing children with disabilities and from low-income families to have priority. 

Danny Garrett from the executive council of the Louisiana School Board Association, explained that while his organization tried to get on board with LA GATOR, it could not due to accountability concerns since private schools do not have to use the same accountability tests or adhere to the same content standards.“When we spend that kind of money, we have to have true accountability, and the only way that we will know if they’re doing a good job is if we make them take the test,” said Garrett.

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