School Choice Makes Strides in Louisiana

Published June 1, 2008

New measures introduced by Louisiana policymakers make the forecast for more school choice positive, thanks to a $10 million initiative included in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) 2008-2009 budget.

The bill to carry out Jindal’s initiative, HB 1347, introduced April 22 by state Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans), would distribute scholarships through the Louisiana Department of Education and Board of Education to New Orleans students attending nonpublic schools.

“We must also provide educational scholarships to parents in Orleans Parish who often have no choice for their children other than the local failing school,” Jindal said in his March 2008 Regular Session Opening Speech to the state legislature. “These scholarships follow a very simple and pure American principle–that every child has an equal right to good opportunities and a good education.”

Helping Families

If the bill passes, the Student Scholarships for Educational Excellence program will give parents 90 percent of the money a public school would have spent on their child, or the full cost of the student’s education in the nonpublic school, whichever is less.

The program would use the $10 million already allocated for school choice in the governor’s budget, not taking away any money from the public school district, Badon explained, and it would be available to New Orleans students in kindergarten through third grade.

The bill’s advocates say the state could end up saving money if the bill passes before the legislative session ends in June.

“It’s the right thing to do because it gives parents the choice of how to educate their kids,” Badon said. “Each day, each month that goes by that we don’t do something, we’re all at fault.”

Growing Pains

Over the past three years, several efforts to expand school choice have arisen in the state, including Jindal’s budget initiative and HB 1347. The state established a competitive system of charter schools in New Orleans–and last year two school voucher bills were debated in the legislature, though neither passed, state Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Jefferson) noted.

“New Orleans is a model for the country right now in how to redesign a completely failed school system,” Scalise said. “A lot of states could learn from the reforms we’ve made since [Hurricane] Katrina.”

The changes have not come easily. In June 2007, the House Education Committee killed a voucher bill, and a month later Jindal’s predecessor, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D), vetoed a bill that would have given private school parents a $5,000 tax deduction.

Changing Attitudes

The bills that did not pass, however, opened the door for the ones currently on the table, observers say. Since last summer, Louisiana residents have elected a new governor and several new state legislators, many of whom support school choice, explained Gene Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum. These politicians’ efforts and arguments have done much to change public opinion about school choice and education reform, he said.

“This governor is seen as the clean-up guy,” Mills said. “There is no doubt that new leadership has established itself as formidable and for change. He believes in empowering parents. When the system fails, it interferes with the parents’ prerogative. People who before have said, ‘I’d never vote for a voucher bill,’ are willing to consider it now because this governor’s made so much sense.”

Scalise said he and other legislators who care about school choice will do everything they can, including lobbying other legislators, to get the scholarship bill passed. That, he said, could lead to greater acceptance of future school choice initiatives.

“Many students [would] finally get access to schools that will give them a solid education where they were being let down by a failed public education,” Scalise said.

Saving Money

Badon said the scholarships might help the state avoid having to implement other costly programs in the future.

“We give vouchers for everything else,” Badon said. “Why can’t we give a voucher for this? I call it a scholarship. Maybe if we gave out educational scholarships, we wouldn’t have to give scholarships for other things.”

Badon said a good education could get Louisiana residents “off the road” of depending on state money.

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

For more information …

Louisiana HB 1347: