For nearly three decades, there’s been a movement underway to not only improve and modernize public education but also help parents in search of non-traditional educational options for their child’s education beyond homeschooling, which remains quite popular and continues to grow. The reasons are simple: (1) many believe that our current structure of education was designed to prepare kids for a “factory” model of education that no longer exists, and they want to increase their child’s ability to learn and grow to their full potential; and (2) kids are different and have unique abilities, learning styles, and needs. What works for one child may not work for another, even in what some deem a “good” school.

What is school choice? 

School choice – the term many use to refer to state-approved and state-funded school options – began in the U.S. in the 1990s through scholarship or voucher programs, which help students attend certain private schools. The approval of charter schools, which are public schools run by non-profit community governance boards and operated via performance contracts with a state or local authorizer. Charter schools are exempt from certain laws and regulations in exchange for greater accountability. They can be shut down for failing to meet performance expectations.

Louisiana has three state-funded private school choice programs. They are:

  • Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence Program (SSEEP): A scholarship or voucher program to help low-income students entering kindergarten or attending a D- or F-rated public school enroll in an approved private school;
  • School Choice Program for Students with Exceptionalities: A tuition assistance program for students living in certain parishes who have special needs to enroll in an approved private school; and
  • Tuition Donation Credit Program: A program where individual or corporate donations fund scholarships for low-income students to enroll in an approved private school.

The state has about 150 public charter schools throughout the state that are open enrollment but are restricted in the number of students they are allowed to serve. Where demand exceeds available seats, lotteries are used to determine which children can enroll. Additional information about charter schools in Louisiana can be found through the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools here.

Having these school options is great, but they don’t even come close to meeting increasing family demand. Most private schools participating in one or more of the above scholarship programs have limited seats available due to facility space or their ability to financially cover costs given the amount of the scholarship. Most have waiting lists and have to deny applications every year. In addition, many students are not eligible due to restrictions on family income or the requirement to first attend a D- or F-rated public school. Charter schools similarly have limited capacity or are not allowed by their authorizers to serve more students, even when family demand is evident. BASIS Charter School – Materra Campus in Baton Rouge, for example, has 700 applicants on its waiting list.

These programs and schools are obviously very popular with parents, but they’re insufficient. And in some cases, they’re still not what parents are really looking for when it comes to their child’s education. Both models come with lots of laws and government rules and regulations – so many that school leaders and teachers who work there say they can’t innovate and give their students the kind of learning opportunities they desire, which is why they chose a non-traditional, non-public option in the first place.

State-approved private schools must follow policies that, while less than that required of public schools, still force them to conform to traditional models of schooling in many ways. Charter schools must teach Louisiana state academic content standards using aligned curricula, administer state standardized tests, and follow a growing number of state requirements. Their autonomy has eroded over the years, which needs to be addressed by Louisiana’s legislature and state education board; we’ll save that for another article.

School Choice

Enter educational freedom. This more recent movement recognizes that, in many ways, the now-mature form of school choice needs to evolve or be supplemented with additional, innovative, and flexible educational options that work for kids, their families, and even educators, many of whom have become frustrated and felt constrained in traditional school environments, both public and private. Some families and educators have begun setting up new private schools that do not seek state approval, do not accept public funds, and therefore have complete autonomy in how they teach, assess progress, operate, and work with parents to educate their children.

In Louisiana, this category of schools has been growing faster than any other, now serving over 19,000 students in almost every parish in the state. Some of these schools are “micro-schools” that enroll more than a single family but are smaller than many traditional state-approved private schools. Some use models in which kids direct their own learning and learn at their own pace; others use classical, project-based, faith-based, or other curricula.

The educational freedom movement has also led to some educators becoming small business owners and entrepreneurs – providers or vendors that provide part-time or full-time schools or programs, provide educational services to other schools, serve families directly, or work with groups of families who come together to educate their kids. They are able to offer face-to-face and/or virtual instruction and support in certain subjects or in areas where families need help providing their child with core instruction, tutoring, enrichment, or specialized services. Progress is measured through a variety of assessments that are aligned with the model chosen.

Many families living in Louisiana, which is one of the poorest states in the U.S., cannot afford to pay for private school tuition or a la carte educational services out of pocket. This is why several states have begun passing flexible educational scholarships or “savings” accounts (ESAs) aimed at giving families a sufficient amount of money that would otherwise be spent on government-run education to empower them to design an educational program that best fits their child’s needs.

Arizona and West Virginia have passed near-universal programs for which most families qualify that have been called the “gold standard” in educational freedom. Parents can use the funds to pay private school tuition, hire individual instructors or providers, and fund other necessary educational costs like textbooks, computers, or supplies. Louisiana lawmakers passed two small-scale ESA programs last year, but Governor Edwards vetoed them.

Given the growing outcry for educational options and news coverage of families obtaining it in other states, Louisiana families are sure to make their desires known in upcoming legislative sessions and in the upcoming election cycle. The question is, will their elected leaders hold them and their schools back and force them into structures and models that don’t meet their needs, or will they enable innovation and honor the role of parents in raising and directing the education of their children in an increasingly demanding, challenging world?