Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Rowland: Public Dollars Should Represent ALL

by BIZ Magazine

“Public money for K-12 students in Louisiana is closer to being steered to private schools under a proposal the state House of Representatives approved Monday.” 

This headline in the Louisiana Illuminator on April 8, 2024 already had me shaking my head. Then after reading last week’s opinion piece in the Bossier Press Tribune from Rep. Dodie Horton, who represents a large portion of Bossier Parish and is endorsing Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), I was left truly bewildered. Is anyone in the legislature listening and does no one care about the lack of parity, accountability and transparency in the proposed legislation encompassed in House Bill 745 and Senate Bill 313? 

Let me be clear from the start. Bossier Schools is not afraid of competition. Bring it on. We thrive to compete. But in all of my years of playing ball and coaching, a fair game starts with a playing field, and this is anything but that. 

Make no mistake, every public school system in Louisiana is under attack – and yes, I said “system.” People make up systems and at Bossier Schools, that is the equivalent of more than 22,000 children and more than 3,000 teachers and support employees whose sole purpose is to educate every student that walks through our doors and prepare them for success. There is no “institution” or “system” in the people business more so than public education, because we educate ALL. That means children who excel academically and those that do not; students with disabilities and exceptionalities; those whose first language is not English; individuals whose beliefs may be considered different than the majority; students who come from poverty; and those that are white, black, brown and all colors in between. There are no admission standards for a child to receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) funded by public tax dollars. All means all. Can private institutions say the same? 

Under the proposed legislation, they don’t have to answer that, nor will private schools or other approved educational institutions participating in the LA GATOR Scholarship (ESA) Program be subject to the same rigorous standards and oversight measures as public schools. They are not 

mandated to follow the state curriculum, give the same standardized tests, receive a district report card or school performance score, provide transportation and meals, offer services to children with disabilities or even hire certified teachers. They can also limit the number of students admitted. So, if this is about choice, how can a parent make an informed decision about which school is best for their child when there is nothing they can compare? Again, in order to compete and ensure a fair game, there needs to be an even playing field.

The other foul ball being hurled toward home plate is the lack of transparency in how ESAs will be funded. According to Rep. Horton, “funding for ESAs would NOT come from the existing Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) which is how public school systems are funded.” She went on to write, “The money that would fund ESAs comes from your pockets. We pay state income, property and sales taxes so that services may be provided for the betterment of the people in our state. This money belongs to the people, not systems.” Yet there is no funding source on record and the state cannot definitively say where the money will come from. 

The keywords mentioned above are “existing MPF.” Calling a constitutional convention is all but a given at this point in Baton Rouge and there are only two areas of the state budget that are constitutionally protected: health care and public education. Given that 132 of the 1,110 bills filed this legislative session were related to education, want to take a stab at which area of the budget is anticipated to go under the knife so the MFP can be carved into a new funding calculation allowing public dollars to be diverted to private institutions? I will give you one guess. 

ESAs do not come without a hefty price tag. Thirteen states currently have ESAs in place and all have incurred funding issues. Take Arizona, for example, where costs exceeded projections by 1,400%. This school year, it is costing taxpayers more than $900 million. The Public Affairs 

Research Council of Louisiana puts the annual cost of the proposed ESA program at $520 million once it is fully implemented. 

And to the critics who say all the hullabaloo being heard from public school districts comes down to money, consider this. If ESAs come to pass, it is a real concern that as students leave public schools – whether for local private institutions, online programs based out-of-state or schools out-of-district – it could eventually necessitate a reduction in force and fewer opportunities for the children we serve. Public schools in Louisiana are already underfunded and teacher salaries lag behind the Southern Regional Average. Recruiting and retaining educators is already difficult. How would ESAs poise public schools to better compete and how is that more advantageous for ALL of the children of Louisiana? 

One more thing. Even if you do not have children in Bossier Schools, this legislation still affects you and your pocketbook. The strength of a school system reflects the vitality of a community and quality of life. According to the latest U.S. Census, nearly 92-percent of all school-age children in the parish attend Bossier Schools. Young families see value in our public education system and move here because of it. That, in turn, is what drives property values; not private schools, online programs or alternative providers. We must protect the dollars our parish and voters have committed to public education. 

I leave you with this. In other states where ESAs have been implemented, it has been seen that by providing public funds for private school tuition, it has primarily benefited families who can afford or are already sending their children to private schools. Meanwhile, students that do not meet admission requirements, and marginalized communities that rely on public schools for their education, are being left behind. Do we want to further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Louisiana? I would like to think we all want what is best for every child.

It is my hope and prayer that you will reach out to our legislators and urge them to protect public education and, at the very least, to pass amendments that will require parity, accountability and transparency in order to level the playing field and ensure a fair game. 

Jason Rowland is Superintendent of Bossier Parish Schools.

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