Lawmakers advance school choice bills: What does this mean for Louisiana families?
Over the past week, Louisiana lawmakers in the House have advanced two bills to expand educational freedom, making it easier for families to enroll their children in the school that best fits their individual needs. House Bill 9 by Representative Rhonda Butler expands school choice for children with disabilities, allowing state dollars to follow kids to a private school or home-based program. House Bill 98 by Representative Lance Harris phases in eligibility for a similar program for all students in the state over four years. In addition to allowing state dollars to follow kids to a private school or home-based program, his bill additionally allows parents to request a transfer from one public school to another public school within or across school districts, recognizing that desirable options exist within the public and nonpublic school systems.
Parents seek other educational options for many reasons. Perhaps their child is attending a low-performing school that isn’t improving or improving fast enough. Maybe their child’s special needs aren’t being met. Perhaps there are bullying or safety concerns. Some parents just want an educational program that more closely aligns with their values.
How would these bills help?
Let’s start with public school choice. Most public-school districts restrict school access to students who live in certain geographic attendance zones. In other words, only families who live in a certain zoned area can attend that school. But what if the school where your child is zoned isn’t the best fit? Currently, districts are required to allow parents of children enrolled in D- or F-rated schools to request a transfer to a higher rated school in March of each year. School boards must consider those requests in relation to the requested schools’ capacity. HB 98 would extend that same right to request a transfer to all families, regardless of their child’s current school’s rating. This is important, because even children in highly rated schools sometimes have unmet needs or need a different environment in which to thrive.
This means that parents across the state would get the opportunity to request a transfer to a different public school if they so choose. But what if the requested school is full, doesn’t have capacity, and the transfer request is denied? Where do families go, particularly if they can’t afford private school tuition and can’t make homeschooling work?
That’s where a new education scholarship account (ESA) program comes in. Both bills, HB 9 and HB 98, create programs where state dollars – dollars that would have otherwise been allocated to public schools for a child’s education – get placed into an account in a child’s name, and they “follow” the student to the parents’ chosen school to cover the costs of tuition and fees. The amount is capped at about $5,200, so any costs above that amount would need to be paid by the family or covered through other financial aid or scholarships. For the special education program, the amount is about $9,535. Parents would simply enroll their child in a participating private school and apply the program funds toward the tuition and fee bill. It’s as easy as that.
Another option is to use these same funds for a home-based program, an online program, a hybrid model, or even the purchase of instructional/educational courses and services from multiple vendors or providers. Those vendors and providers would register with the state, and ESA recipients would be able to apply their ESA funds toward these costs, so long as all core academic subjects are included in the student’s educational plan for the school year. The funds can be used to pay for instruction, textbooks and curricula, technology, and supplies, and other items needed for the child’s education. Any unused funds would be carried over to the next year.
The program requires annual testing of all participating students so that families can measure their child’s learning. Participating private schools and providers must undergo regular audits to make sure that funds are being appropriately used.
The choices made available through these bills would be optional; there’s no requirement for a family to relocate their child to another school if they’re happy where they are and are being served well. But for those who need a change in order for their child to thrive, these options offer a lifeline. They also introduce a healthy competitive pressure on schools to be responsive to students’ and their families’ needs, knowing that if they don’t, parents have other options they can afford.
Parents know their children better than anyone else, and they’re in the best position to determine which school fits. It’s time to remove the obstacles that stand in their way, whether they’re rigid attendance zones or financial barriers. Louisiana can do what several other states have already done, which is to expand school choice and ensure educational freedom in all forms. It’s what kids and families need to thrive, and it’s what our state needs to be competitive in the long run.