Louisiana Fails to Approve School Choice Measures

Published October 1, 2007

Though Louisiana legislators tried to give tax deductions to parents who want to enroll their children in private schools, their efforts fizzled this summer after one bill was vetoed and another was voted down.

No funds for private education may mean no school at all for children put on waiting lists to attend public school, observed Father William Maestri, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

“Right now, you could go down to certain parts of Orleans Parish, and you could find children at this particular time of the day, playing basketball,” Maestri said. “Those children should be in school. But there’s no room for these children to go to school.”

Efforts Failed

On July 19 Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) vetoed Senate Bill 45, sponsored by state Sen. Rob Marionneaux (D-Livonia), which would have given parents with children in private schools a tax deduction of up to $5,000.

Legislators tried to override the veto, but were unable to muster the votes.

House Bill 623, sponsored by state Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Jefferson), was defeated in the House Education Committee on June 5. It would have offered vouchers to parents to help pay private-school tuition.

Unions Opposed Choice

Many who supported the unsuccessful bills say the teachers unions lobbied hard against them.

“Eventually, the teachers union was more interested in looking out for their purse than looking out for the children,” Scalise said.

Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, a conservative advocacy group based in Baton Rouge, said he thinks the union fears losing money on students who transfer to private schools.

Christian Roselund, communications director for United Teachers of New Orleans, confirmed that impression, saying the public schools sorely need the money that would have been “lost” to private education.

Roselund said the union is not opposed to allowing children to attend whatever school their parents choose. However, he said, they disagree with tax dollars “going to undermine a public school system” by transferring money to private schools.

Government Control Lauded

Although no tax dollars would have been spent on the private schools, Roselund said it makes no difference: “You’re just taking it from the pot of money that would go into the government’s hands to disperse rather than taking it later.”

Likewise, Les Landen, spokesperson for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said public money must be spent on public education.

“I believe that people have every right to send their children to private schools if they wish,” Landen said, “but that’s an inappropriate use of public funds.”

Mills disagreed, pointing out, “It was simply a tax deduction, very minimal, one of the easiest things [Gov. Blanco] could have signed,” Mills said. “In a very punitive way, not only did she not sign it, she vetoed it.”

Blanco’s veto statement said state government’s primary responsibility is to maintain a public education system, and she feared the legislation would subsidize private schools at the expense of public schoolchildren.

Moving Forward

Historically, Louisiana has been an economically poor state with a less-than-competitive education system.

A free-market education system in which parents have choices could fix that by motivating lagging schools to try harder, Mills said.

Maestri sees private options as much-needed relief for children who otherwise won’t be taught. Currently, the city’s Catholic schools have 15,000 public school transfer students who cannot pay tuition.

“We would work out the finances later,” Maestri said. “I’m not worried about the finances. I want children in school.”

Maestri also noted that private education–provided to children on public school waiting lists–has brought New Orleans one step closer to recovery.

“Our idea,” Maestri said, “was that we needed to have families back, and families bring back all of the things that infrastructure requires so that we can build and go forward.”

Jillian Melchior ([email protected]) writes from Michigan.