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Lawmakers to discuss cost of proposed education savings accounts

Supporters of education savings accounts gather on the steps on the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on March 21, 2024.
Aubri Juhasz
Supporters of education savings accounts gather on the steps on the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge on March 21, 2024.

Update April 2, 2024: Members of the House Appropriations Committee voted 13-8 to advance HB 745. The bill heads next to the full House.

Lawmakers will consider the potentially immense cost of a bill that would make public money available to any Louisiana parent who sends their child to a private school.

House members are set to discuss HB 745, by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, during a committee meeting on Tuesday. The bill creates education savings accounts — or ESAs — a voucher-like program that exists in some form in at least a dozen states.

Former Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, vetoed narrower versions of the bill in 2022, citing the potential financial harm they could have caused public schools. Now, Republican Gov. Jeff Landry appears ready to sign a universal program into law if the current bill passes.

Landry told lawmakers at the start of the session that Louisiana is failing its students — and the solution is to give parents more power over their children's education.

"We cannot continue to be tone deaf to the moms and dads who are working two jobs to pay for a decent education for their child," Landry said, referring to families who already pay to send their kids to private schools.

If the bill is approved, all families would eventually be eligible for ESAs, though not until the fall of 2027.

The program would open first, in 2025, to students who receive vouchers under the state's existing programs for low-income families, are starting kindergarten, attended a public school the year before or whose parents made no more than 250 percent of the federal poverty line. That’s about $78,000 for a family of four.

The amount of money given to parents would be based on the family's income and calculated as a percentage of the current local and state funding given to public schools on a per student basis. Lower-income families would receive 80% of the average amount per child. While higher-income families would receive 55% — about $5,200 a year.

The bill passed the House Education Committee last month, where the debate largely focused on its cost and how accounts would be funded if the program passes without the Legislature appropriating enough money.

One estimate from the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) Louisiana, which typically supports increasing school choice programs, puts the program’s eventual cost at $520 million annually.

Steven Procopio, PAR's president, said the biggest expense by far would be money given to families that already pay private school tuition on their own. He supports education savings accounts, but said the state should focus its limited resources on higher-need students.

"If you use the money there first, it's gonna be relatively cheaper. So whatever impact you get, it's going to be a bigger bang for the buck," he said. "But I also just think it probably will have a bigger impact on the academic progress for those kids."

The state’s own estimate is about half of PAR’s and assumes fewer parents will apply for funding.

More than 100,000 kids attend private school in Louisiana. At a minimum, their parents would have access to about $5,200 per child each year if the bill passes as is — and the Legislature appropriates the necessary funding. (That's a big if, though, since Louisiana is expected to face a significant deficit when the state's sales tax expires in 2025.)

A growing number of Republican-led states have recently adopted — and in some cases expanded — ESAs. Like Landry, proponents argue they put parents in control and help students.

Supporters argue parents deserve a real choice between public and private schools, and that savings accounts make it possible for low- and middle-income families to afford tuition.

But vouchers don't always cover tuition in full, leaving a gap some families can't fill. As a result, opponents frame vouchers as a subsidy for wealthier families and a gift to private, in some cases religious, schools. They point to concerns of ballooning budgets and the leaching of money from already underfunded public schools.

There is even concern the program could harm students academically due to lack of accountability and oversight (a fear realized under the state's voucher program).

Under Louisiana's bill, private schools that accept payments from ESAs would maintain full autonomy and not be required to provide services for students with special needs.

Molly Ryan is a political reporter and covers state politics from the Louisiana Capitol.
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.