Louisiana to allow tax dollars to pay for private schools in ‘abandonment of public education’

The LA GATOR Scholarship Program aims to introduce school vouchers, a controversial policy that has seen mixed results across the United States.

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After an aggressive push by Republican Governor Jeff Landry, the Louisiana Senate advanced a bill this week that would allow public funds to be used for private school tuition—sending what one Democrat called an “abandonment” of the state’s public schools to the state House, where it is expected to pass.

The state Senate approved the Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise (LA GATOR) Scholarship Program in a vote of 25-15 on Thursday, with just four Republicans joining the Democratic Party in opposing the bill. The program would allow the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to create “education savings accounts” (ESAs), which would give families state tax dollars to pay for private school tuition, uniforms, and other expenses.

The grants would first be available to low-income families and special education students, but in the program’s third year, the ESAs are set to be available to all Louisiana families. The legislation was briefly shelved this week over concerns about its cost, but Landry, backed by right-wing groups and donors, used television ads to push his party to support the ESAs. Landry went as far as suggesting lawmakers could revise the state constitution to end a restriction mandating that certain public funds are set aside for K-12 public schools. He called on the state Senate to hold a special convention to do so, in order to unlock funding for the $520 million yearly cost of the LA GATOR program.

The LA GATOR Scholarship Program aims to introduce school vouchers, a controversial policy that has seen mixed results across the United States. Historically, voucher programs have been promoted as a way to increase school choice, allowing parents to use public funds to send their children to private schools. However, these programs often face criticism for diverting funds away from public schools, potentially exacerbating existing inequalities.

Louisiana’s public education system has struggled with funding challenges for years. The state’s schools rank near the bottom nationally in terms of performance, and many schools are under-resourced. Proponents of the LA GATOR program argue that it will provide families with more options and stimulate improvement through competition. Critics contend that it will further drain public school resources and leave the most vulnerable students behind.

Senate Bill 313, authored by state Senator Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, sets up the framework for the LA GATOR Scholarship Program. The bill allows the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to create ESAs, initially targeting low-income students and those with special needs. By the program’s third year, the ESAs will be available to all Louisiana families. Funding concerns were a major issue during the bill’s debate. The initial costs are estimated at $1.8 million, with a projected $50 million needed if all eligible families participate in the first phase. The annual cost could rise to $520 million once fully implemented.

Governor Jeff Landry played a significant role in pushing for the bill’s passage. Utilizing television ads and support from right-wing groups and donors, Landry emphasized the need for school choice. “For too long our education system has ranked near the bottom, but today we took the first step toward changing that,” said Edmonds. Landry suggested that a constitutional amendment might be necessary to fund the program, calling for a special convention to address the issue.

Opposition to the bill was vocal and varied. State Senator Royce Duplessis, D-5, criticized the bill as an abandonment of public education. “We as a state are making the decision and taking the step to say that it’s too hard, it’s too complex” to fund public schools, Duplessis said moments before the Senate vote. Local school board members, teachers, and superintendents lobbied Republicans to protect public school funding. Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, warned that the bill could lead to budget crises similar to those seen in other states with voucher programs. “If we’re cutting that funding stream, Louisiana students will have fewer nurses and counselors, less options for after-school programs, and certainly limited access to field trips and AP courses that help prepare them for their next step in life,” Carter said.

Other states with similar programs, such as Arizona and Ohio, have experienced significant budgetary issues. Schools in these states have faced funding shortfalls, leading to cuts in essential services and resources. Experts warn that Louisiana could face similar challenges, exacerbating existing educational disparities and leaving public schools underfunded and understaffed.

Reactions from parents and community members have been mixed. Governor Landry held town halls in Mandeville and Metairie to promote the ESA program, emphasizing the benefits of school choice. However, many parents and educators expressed concerns about the potential negative impacts on public education. Louisiana-based journalist Dayne Sherman described the program as a lesson in “how to starve your local Louisiana public school, Clownfish-style.”

“This is a major step towards ensuring school choice and empowering parents to choose the learning environments that align with their values and work best for their children,” said Governor Jeff Landry. “However, we must remain vigilant to ensure that public education does not suffer as a result,” added Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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