What the Legislature Did (and Didn’t Do) on Education

What the Legislature Did (and Didn’t Do) on Education

Legislation on crime, taxes, and the state’s budget dominated much of Louisiana’s 2023 Regular Session, but there were significant actions taken on education bills as well. Still lingering in the bottom ten states nationally for student achievement, though improving in some areas, Louisiana is far from done when it comes to efforts needed to accelerate student learning and expand educational options for its school-age children.

Reading and Math

Starting with foundational skills in reading and math, Louisiana’s lawmakers passed House Bill 12 by Representative Richard Nelson, which requires third graders to demonstrate proficiency in reading or receive targeted supports and interventions before being promoted to the fourth grade. It awaits signature by the Governor. They also passed two bills, House Bill 326 by Representative Nelson (now Act 347), and Senate Bill 163 by Senator Sharon Hewitt (now Act 260), to enhance training of teaching in numeracy (foundational mathematics) for current teachers and in teacher education programs for aspiring teachers.

The Louisiana Department’s latest available LEAP scores (2022) show that by the end of the third grade, only 37 percent of Louisiana public school students demonstrated proficiency in English language arts and 38 percent in math. In eighth grade, those percentages were 47 and 23, respectively. In high school, between 41-46 percent of students demonstrated proficiency in English (as measured at the end of English I and II courses) and between 28-34 percent in math (Algebra I and Geometry). These numbers were higher pre-COVID (2019), and Louisiana is still working to make up valuable ground lost as a result of school interruptions over the past few years:

The Legislature passed Senate Bill 177 by Senator Patrick McMath, which requires public schools to continue providing tutoring and other evidence-based interventions for students who are not proficient in English in math using more than $2.5 billion in federal COVID recovery funding that many school systems have not yet spent. The bill is pending signature by the Governor.

Related to foundational math instruction was Act 267, sponsored by Representative Nicholas Muscarello and 118 co-authors, which added Financial Literacy as a required course for high school students. Financial Literacy teaches opening and managing a bank account, balancing a checkbook, basic principles of money management and personal insurance policies, taxes, savings and investments, and more.

School Choice and Educational Freedom

Lawmakers in the state House of Representatives passed two bills which would have expanded school choice and educational freedom, allowing state dollars to “follow the child” to a family-selected school. House Bill 9 by Representative Rhonda Butler would have created an education scholarship program for children with disabilities, allowing them to use state funds that would have otherwise funded their education in a public school at a state-approved private school or to design a home-based program using state-approved education service providers. That bill was passed 94-3 and reported favorably by the Senate Education Committee but was not advanced to the full Senate for a vote.

House Bill 98 by Representative Lance Harris would have expanded public school choice – the ability for families to transfer from one public school to another within their school system or across district lines – and would have created the Sunshine Scholarship Program for all students in the state to leverage state funds that would have otherwise funded their education in a public school to attend a state-approved private school or to design a home-based program using state-approved education service providers. The bill was approved by a vote of 61-37, including “yes” votes from 58 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Nine Republicans, 27 Democrats, and one Independent voted against the bill. The bill was not advanced to the Senate for consideration but is likely to be introduced again next year.

Other bills that would have limited operational autonomy or placed onerous requirements on Louisiana charter schools, which are public schools of choice, were wisely rejected. The Senate Education Committee refused to favorably report (recommend to the full Senate) Senate Bill 25 and Senate Concurrent Resolution 34 by Senator Joseph Bouie, and the House Education Committee refused to favorably report House Bill 375 by Representative Barbara Carpenter.

Financial Transparency

Lawmakers passed and Governor Edwards signed into law House Bill 462/Act 370 by Representative Rick Edmonds, which requires certain fiscal information – revenues, expenses, and contracts – to be published on school system websites and submitted to the Treasurer’s Office for posting on the Department of Treasury’s fiscal transparency webpage twice per year.

Parents of children enrolled in public schools deserve to know how tax dollars are being spent so they can be informed, engaged in local decision-making, and hold local school leaders accountable for outcomes. This is especially important for the approximately 300 D- and F-rated schools around the state that have been identified by the state for improvement and are receiving extra funds for interventions. It’s also important to track the $4 billion in federal COVID relief money – on top of the $4 billion in MFP money they receive each year – that schools have received to address learning loss.

Louisiana spends the most per student in the Southeast for some of the lowest educational outcomes:

 

2018-2019 (pre-COVID)

Per Student Spending

2019-2020 (latest available)

Per Student Spending

United States $13,189 $13,489
Louisiana $11,920 $12,009
Georgia $11,203 $11,686
Arkansas $10,412 $10,369
Alabama $10,107 $10,140
Tennessee $9,941 $9,974
Texas $9,868 $10,394
Florida $9,986 $10,305
Mississippi $9,253 $9,614

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

In 2021, Rep. Edmonds passed a bill similar to Act 370 that was vetoed. Also that year, the Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 22, which asked school districts to post similar fiscal information on their websites. That request was ignored by most school systems, so lawmakers did what they typically do when their requests are ignored: they passed legislation that places the desired actions in state law.

Other Bills of Interest

The Legislature also passed several other education-related bills that attracted a lot of attention, including House Bill 121 by Representative Beryl Amedee which was enacted as Act 219. The new law mandates that each public school that enrolls students in grades kindergarten through fifth must provide at least fifteen minutes of recess each school day. Lawmakers were stunned to learn that some schools currently do not provide even that, although school representatives claimed that schools often provide breaks to students throughout the school day.

Lawmakers also passed two bills dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity. House Bill 466 by Representative Dodie Horton prohibits teachers, school employees, and other presenters at a school from engaging in discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity with students in grades kindergarten through twelve. The bill also requires school employees to use a student’s name that is listed on his or her birth certificate or another name authorized by the student’s parent, and they may not use pronouns for a student that differ from the pronouns that reflect the sex indicated on the student’s birth certificate unless the student’s parent provides written permission. The bill further provides that no teacher or school employee shall be required to use pronouns for any person that differ from the pronouns that reflect the sex indicated on the person’s birth certificate if doing so would violate the teacher’s or employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

House Bill 81 by Representative Raymond Crews, called the “Given Name Act,” contains similar provisions. Governor Edwards has indicated that he plans to veto both of these bills.

In the state’s budget, rather than provide a permanent raise for public school employees, the Legislature ultimately passed a one-time stipend of $2,000 for teachers, $1,000 for support workers, and $25 million in “differential pay” that school leaders can use for hard-to-staff, shortage, or performance-based stipends. Governor Edwards hasn’t yet acted on the budget bill, but is expected to preserve these appropriations.

Overall, the Legislature took some good steps on education, but missed a great opportunity to expand educational options for Louisiana families as several other states have boldly done over the past two years. This is expected to be key issue in campaigns this fall and will surely be on the list of top priorities for the new governor and legislature in 2024. Learn more about Pelican’s recommended solutions for education in the Comeback Agenda.

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