Saturday, July 13, 2024

Louisiana’s educational savings account program less regulated than other states

by BIZ Magazine

(The Center Square) — There are some major differences between Louisiana’s recently passed educational savings account program and those in other Southern states.

The Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise Scholarship Program was signed into law by Gov. Jeff Landry on June 19 and provides educational savings accounts to parents so they can have more choice in what school their children will attend.

Senate Bill 313, authored by Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, will replace the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program after the 2024-2025 school year. This program was designed only for students in poverty.

The funds can also be used for tutors, online school tuition, curriculum or even to fund a hybrid program where a student attends a private school part time.

Other states, like Arkansas, are not as lenient with how the funding can be utilized. Parents in Arkansas can only use the ESAs to pay for private school tuition and other approved educational expenses associated with the participating school. They also must first use funds on tuition and fees at a private school prior to accessing other allowed expenses.

The use of funding isn’t the only way Louisiana’s program is more vague than its neighboring states. Nathan Sanders, Policy and Advocacy Director of EDChoice, a national nonprofit organization in support of ESAs, told The Center Square that the Pelican State left more regulation out of the legislation than most.

“Louisiana left a lot of determination to the state board of education,” Sanders said. “A lot of these states, in the legislation they’ll outline the path to universal eligibility.”

Sanders referenced Louisiana’s loose definition of phases for the ESA. Other states, like Alabama, set dates into law, whereas Louisiana is allowing the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to decide when it’ll be able to move forward to the next phase.

The Arkansas Department of Education gave The Center Square a statement on their phase-in strategy.

“We are excited for year two this school year and year three in 2025-26, when all Arkansas families will have the opportunity to choose the school that best meets the needs of their child,” Mundell said.

The phases themselves are similar. Phase one of the GATOR initiative will prioritize students who participated in the previous program.

Phase two will then arrange for children entering kindergarten and students who were enrolled in public school the previous year. All three phases, but especially phase three, will help families at or below 250% of the federal poverty line. Other states have different poverty line measures, but the same prioritization of less fortunate families.

Florida has been a pioneer for ESAs and has had some type of program since the early 2000s. Lawmakers passed a bill to expand to universal ESAs for all K-12 students with no financial eligibility restrictions or enrollment caps in 2023.

Florida also uniquely offers families of eligible students the option to receive a $750 scholarship to provide transportation to a public school different from the school to which the student was assigned.

Louisiana also didn’t outline funding restrictions in legislation. In Arkansas, there’s a cap at $6,856 for educational expenses. Not having a limit could lead to either too much or too little spending, but Sanders says he isn’t worried about the latter.

“Knowing our Legislature and their conservative nature, I don’t think the runaway spending thing is gonna be a problem,” Sanders said.

Sanders also said the state Board of Education will have a better idea of what to set a possible cap at after the first year of applications.

The amount of Southern states hopping on the ESA trend is piling up but Mississippi is one that still hasn’t expanded beyond its original intent.

Mississippi’s program only provides help to children with special needs, and only about 7% of students in the state qualify. Wil Ervin, a senior vice president at Empower Mississippi, a foundation that advocates public policy such as school choice and criminal justice reform, told The Center Square that Louisiana might push them in the right direction.

“We have a few, certainly nothing as robust as what Louisiana just passed,” Ervin said of ESA programs. “We would love to see something like that in Mississippi.”

Despite the unique strategy Louisiana is taking by giving more power to its board of education than other states, Sanders has confidence it will move along and become just as impactful as Florida’s.

“We would probably feel more comfortable if a lot of these things were outlined in legislation, but I am confident in the BESE board to learn from others and take the best practices from them.”

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