BATON ROUGE, La. – While only 8,700 Louisiana students rely on the state’s public scholarship program to attend the school of their choice, the state’s lawmakers worked this session to expand options for additional Louisiana children.
The state saw three school choice bills pass this year, including a new public school choice program and modifications to existing programs. Gov. Bobby Jindal is expected to sign them all.
“I really think support for the scholarship program is growing,” said Stephanie Malin, communications associate for Louisiana Federation for Children, a project of the American Federation for Children. “We’ve had bipartisan support in the House and Senate, but more Democratic support in the Senate this year.”
The state’s school grading system gives each school an A to F letter grade, based on a variety of measures, to indicate the school’s quality. Some students are assigned to attend D or F graded schools, and many of their families are unable to afford to move or foot the cost of private school tuition. Under a new bill, those students would be permitted to enroll in nearby schools that are given an A, B, or C grade.
The bill, SB61, was sponsored by Sen. Ben Nevers.
“I do believe we ought to give more options to parents whose kids are in schools that aren’t performing well,” said Rep. John Bel Edwards, who handled the bill on the House floor. “I also believe that when we do that, we ought to be trying to keep the money in the public schools in Louisiana, because that’s what we’re primarily responsible for.”
Under the bill, students can only switch schools if the transfer follows the school systems’ various policies. Receiving districts must agree to participate and must have space available before students can transfer into them.
Most of the schools receiving D and F grades take in children with high concentrations of poverty, Edwards said.
“Those schools are still doing a relatively good job of educating the particular kids that they have, based upon what they’re able to do with those kids. They get those kids in many cases to perform much better than they did when they entered school, but at the end of the day they’re not performing at a level to give (the school) a good letter grade,” he said.
He said it’s important for the state to make sure the A-F school accountability system is fair, “but at the end of the day,” he said, “it is our accountability system, and everybody understands A, B, C, D, or F. If under our system a school is going to have a D or an F, to the extent possible, those parents of those students in the D or F schools should have a choice.”
Edwards said he isn’t comfortable with vouchers, which allow students to transfer to private schools of their parents’ choice and have their tuition publicly funded, but thinks parents ought to have choices within the public school system.
Louisiana’s lawmakers voted to fully fund the state’s voucher program. Another bill allows for greater flexibility for students in the voucher and tuition rebate scholarship program.
Authored by Mary C. Tillotson