Thursday, July 18, 2024

State-funded ESA bill advances to Governor’s desk

by BIZ Magazine

By Elizabeth White | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE–-The Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a stripped-down version of one of Gov. Jeff Landry’s biggest priorities—a move toward education savings accounts that could provide state money to parents who want to send their children to private schools.

 Sen. Rick Edmonds proposed a compromise on creating state-funded educational savings accounts.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Louisiana Senate

Senators voted 23-14 to concur with House changes to a bill that would authorize education officials to consider the accounts. But the compromise version would delay the implementation of the plan and make it easier for the Legislature to scale back the funding.

State officials and private experts had estimated that Landry’s original plan would have eventually cost taxpayers $300 million to $500 million a year. Some lawmakers were concerned about the cost since the state will lose several hundred million in revenue when part of the state sales tax expires next year.

The compromise version of the bill calls on state education officials to study existing educational resources to determine the need for a savings plan and then work with lawmakers on funding levels. Landry, a Republican, is expected to sign the bill.

He also is expected to sign education bills related to cultural debates. Bills to limit the use of alternative pronouns and discussions of gender, and to require schools to post the 10 Commandments in classrooms, also won final passage in the Legislature this week. 

Landry’s original plan for the education savings accounts was included in House Bill 745, which passed the House and was shelved after running into opposition in the Senate. 

Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, had proposed a similar plan in Senate Bill 313 and then overhauled it through a set of amendments that called for the study, which would be completed by Dec. 1.  

“That will give us the data that we’re looking for, to make certain that we’re moving forward correctly,” Edmonds said. “A lot of that data I think brings a lot of comfort to folks.” 

The study will be conducted by the Louisiana Department of Education and the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. They will determine the need for a savings account program and develop any rules and regulations. 

The delay also will give legislators more time to decide to see what happens to state revenues and decide how much money to devote to the plan. 

Landry’s proposal also ran into opposition from school officials in rural parishes, including some that do not have many private schools. Opponents were concerned that giving parents $5,000 to $7,500 a year for each child who attended private school would divert funds from public education. 

The House concurred 60-31 Thursday with Senate amendments placed on House Bill 121, which would prevent teachers from calling students by names or pronouns that do not match their birth certificate. 

Parents would be able to give written consent for their child to be called by a different name. However, under the amendments passed in the Senate on Wednesday, teachers would not be required to address a student by their preferred name or pronoun. 

The amendments also removed the provision in the original bill that parents could request a transfer for their student if a teacher refused to call them by their preferred name or pronoun. 

Sen. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, argued that the bill is necessary to keep schools neutral in culture wars. 

“If a ‘he’ asks to be called ‘she’ and the parents come in and sign the written permission, then the teacher can call him a ‘she,’ but the school district is not going to adopt a policy that requires the school or the teacher to ask,” Seabaugh said.

Sen. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, opposed the bill, saying it targets a vulnerable population and does not improve educational outcomes. Other opponents have voiced similar concerns.

The Senate also voted 28-7 this week to pass House Bill 122, sending it to the governor’s desk as well. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, would prohibit teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in K-12 public schools.

Opponents also called the bill unnecessary and vague. They expressed concern that it would be harmful to student-teacher relationships and classroom discussion.  

The House voted 79-16 to concur with Senate amendments and pass House Bill 71 on to the governor. The amended bill, also sponsored by Horton, would require the 10 Commandments to be displayed in classrooms in public schools and nonpublic schools and colleges that receive state funds. 

“This bill just simply seeks to have a display of God’s law in the classroom for children to see what he says is right and what he says is wrong,” Horton said. 

Critics said the bill would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Other lawmakers attempted to add amendments that would require other religious texts to be displayed as well, but they were rejected. 

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