For Whom Is School Choice, and Who’s For It?
As Louisiana’s state government transitions to new leadership, with a new governor, legislature, and state education board taking office in January 2024, it’s all but a guarantee that the state will follow the example of several others in expanding school choice through education savings accounts (or education scholarship accounts), known as ESAs.
ESAs place state funds into a special account by which families, on a voluntary basis, can choose from a long list of schools, vendors, and providers offering full-time school enrollment, individual courses, and other educational services. Families then pay for them using funds in their child’s account.
Nationally, these programs have been wildly popular, because unlike school choice programs of the past, ESAs allow for greater customization to meet children’s individual educational needs. Families can use funds to pay for full-time private school tuition and fees, or they can hire multiple instructors and purchase educational materials for traditional in-person instruction, home-based education, virtual courses, or even a hybrid model. As a result, what has been regarded as “school choice” has quickly evolving into “educational freedom,” enabling families to serve kids’ unique needs and interests while considering their own needs, priorities, and values.
Most of the ESA programs recently adopted in other states have also expanded student eligibility beyond school choice programs of the past. Many of those programs have been limited to economically disadvantaged families, students zoned to failing public schools, and special populations of children having disabilities, exceptionalities, or in foster care. The newest ESA programs continue serving these high-need populations, but additionally empower all (or nearly all) families in their respective states to choose a school or design an educational program that meets their needs.
As Louisiana considers how best to design its program, how targeted or expansive should its ESA program be?
State leaders should, of course, prioritize those who are currently trapped in a failing public school that isn’t improving, as Louisiana has 352 that have been formally identified by the state as needing improvement. However, a strong argument can be made that all families need additional options because Louisiana’s public school system, in general, is in dire need of improvement. While the state’s K-12 education accountability system gives Louisiana’s public school system a “B” rating overall, just 33% of students are performing at proficient levels in core academic subjects, and only three school systems in the state have more than half of their students on grade level.
Louisiana’s poorest, most disadvantaged families obviously have the most urgent need for agency—the ability to act—to better their child’s education, particularly when their child’s school remains in “improvement” status year after year. In this current 2023-2024 school year, 73% of students attending public schools are economically disadvantaged. In our state, roughly 20% of the population is eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamp benefits, and if you add the number of families that are just above the poverty line and one paycheck away from economic disaster, it’s well over half of Louisiana’s population.
But as families experienced firsthand at the height of the COVID pandemic, children learn differently and thrive when their individual needs are taken into account. Whether they’re assigned to an A-rated or F-rated school, a particular teacher, curriculum, educational program, or even school culture may not give students what they need to reach their full potential. For example, a public magnet school serving high achieving students may not be providing the supports and accommodations needed by students who have dyslexia, ADHD, and other needs. A student in another school might be the victim of bullying. In another instance, a single mom may want to be able to enroll her child at a private faith-based school that’s on her way to work in the neighboring parish.
And since education has long been prioritized as a public good—leading to positive individual and societal outcomes including improved health and well-being, employment, economic prosperity and innovation, and lower crime—and given that the vast majority of individuals in our state pay some form of taxes that finance this public good, there is a strong argument that all should be able to benefit. This is what has led governors and legislatures in several states to enact universal or near-universal ESAs in the past few years.
What do Louisianans think? A poll commissioned by the Pelican Institute in September 2023 shows that 62% of Louisiana voters support ESAs across every demographic. School leaders and providers/vendors that offer educational services have expressed excitement about the possibility of serving more Louisiana families and children and growing the state’s market of innovative educational services to meet students’ needs and prepare them for an increasingly demanding, knowledge-based, global economy.
We have an opportunity and an obligation to significantly expand school options—educational freedom—for all Louisiana children and families to meet their individual needs. The people of Louisiana overwhelmingly concur. It’s “geaux” time. Let’s deliver big for Louisiana families and kids in 2024.
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