Over the past two years, lawmakers and governors in five states – Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia – have launched school choice programs that give all or nearly all families of school-age children the ability to select and pay for the school or educational program that best fits their child’s needs. Modeled after what many call “education savings accounts (ESAs),” the programs deposit dollars that the state would otherwise spend on their education in a public school into an account in the child’s name.

The child’s parents then use the money to pay the public or private school where they choose to enroll the child or to pay an approved vendor or instructor that teaches the child or provides educational services. Funds can be spent on tuition and fees, textbooks and curriculum, technology, instructors and tutors, and other necessary educational supplies and services. About a dozen other states have similar bills pending in their legislative sessions.

Last week, State Representative Lance Harris, who serves as chairman of the Louisiana House of Representatives Committee on Education, introduced House Bill 98, which would create the Louisiana “Sunshine Scholarship Program.” If passed and signed into law, the bill would create a similar program where parents would get to decide how to spend dollars the state would otherwise use to educate a student at his or her zoned public school. Parents would decide how to spend those dollars on approved private school tuition and fees, online school programs, or even home-based education expenses or tutoring. The state would ensure that dollars are used only for approved educational expenses, and students would be required to take either the state LEAP test or another nationally-recognized standardized test where learning is measured and reported. 

Louisiana currently has a few school choice programs that help certain students and their families (low family income, students with disabilities, and/or students attending a low-performing public school) pay for private school tuition and fees, but they are very limited in terms of student eligibility, private school participation due to onerous state requirements, and limited state funding. The current programs also do not allow families to use funds to customize their child’s educational program in the form of home-based education or an increasingly popular hybrid model where students take some courses at a school and others at home as part of a home-based or online program. House Bill 98 would change that, making school choice available to all families who want it and empowering them to choose or design the school or program that best meets their child’s needs.

The bill would also expand Louisiana’s existing public school choice law, which currently allows parents of students attending D and F-rated schools to request a school transfer to an A, B, or C-rated school in the district, by allowing parents of all students to request a school transfer regardless of school rating. If the local school board denies the transfer request, the parent can have the matter reviewed by the state education board. This provision recognizes that even within A, B, or C-rated schools, some students struggle and are in need of a different educational environment to thrive. 

In essence, House Bill 98 would extend school choice that is currently available to just a small group of students and families to all Louisiana families, recognizing that all kids in Louisiana deserve to be able to pursue an education in an environment that works for them, meets their individual needs, and aligns with their family’s values. 

Lawmakers seem eager to pass the bill, watching several other states pass universal (meaning all kids are eligible) school choice laws and still seething from Governor Edwards’ veto of two ESA bills they passed last year that would have expanded educational options for students with disabilities and children struggling with reading. The issue is also expected to dominate the education debates in campaigns for governor, legislature, and state education board this fall. 

School choice certainly isn’t a new idea. The Daily Wire recently highlighted a clip from President Ronald Reagan at his January 10, 1989 White House Workshop on Choice in Education, where after hearing students talk about their experience in some of the nation’s first school choice programs, said: 

“Choice represents a return to some of our most basic notions about education. In particular, programs emphasizing choice reflect the simple truth that the keys to educational success are schools and teachers that teach, and parents who insist that their children learn. They must work in concert, respecting each other’s particular concerns and needs, not second-guessing each other.

“And choice in education is the wave of the future because it represents a return to some of our most basic American values. Choice in education is no mere abstraction. Like its economic cousin, free enterprise, and its political cousin, democracy, it affords hope and opportunity.”

Before the pandemic, several states, including Louisiana, had one or more school choice programs that were open to a small number of students. But expanding those programs – or adding to them – became a high priority in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic when many public schools were shut down. During that time, many parents voiced frustrations about the unresponsiveness of their local school boards. Others expressed concerns about the quality of instruction or content being taught in their child’s online classes that they were observing from home. Studies found that while higher-resourced families were able to find other ways to meet their child’s educational needs during those difficult times, many families with limited financial resources were not. 

American families seem determined to re-assert their role in their child’s education, regain hope, and provide opportunity for the next generation. Louisiana families want and deserve nothing less. The question is how quickly they’ll achieve it, whether Louisiana will become one of the states to expand parental choice in education in 2023 or make families wait. But even a year in a child’s life can make a huge difference, good or bad. The sooner parents can get their children into a school that fits their child’s needs, the sooner they can thrive, and Louisiana can be back on the path to prosperity.