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Landry stumps for stymied bill that would give parents money for private school

Gov. Jeff Landry's signature education proposal, known as the Gator Scholarship, would eventually give all parents public money to pay for private school.
Aubri Juhasz
Gov. Jeff Landry's signature education proposal, known as the Gator Scholarship, would ultimately give all parents public money to pay for private school.

Gov. Jeff Landry attended two town halls Thursday, both at Catholic schools, as part of a last-minute effort to get lawmakers to pass his signature education program before the legislative session ends next month.

“Your money deserves to follow your child,” Landry told a room of supporters at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie. “Sometimes we forget that tax dollars are not the government’s money.”

The proposal would give families money to pay for private school through what’s known as “education savings accounts.” Landry also released two TV ads this week urging parents to push their local senators to support the bill.

Similar programs have been adopted or expanded in other Republican-led states, including Florida and Arizona, in recent years as conservatives turn increasingly toward the privatization of education.

Landry’s plan, known as the Gator Scholarship, has stalled in the Senate in recent weeks. That’s due in part to its potentially high cost — upwards of $500 million a year, according to one estimate — and accountability concerns.

While a House version of the bill passed without significant changes, another was effectively gutted in the Senate, reducing the proposed program to a study.

Landry and the bills’ other advocates, including Americans for Prosperity-Louisiana, which sponsored Thursday’s town halls, hope to pass a new version of the Senate bill that would phase in universal education savings accounts over a period of several years.

“I can tell you right now, we’re going to have a good piece of legislation,” Landry said, describing the merging of the two bills and proposed amendments.

Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, has yet to reintroduce the Senate bill in its new form since pulling it from the Senate floor last week but is expected to soon.

While it’s unclear exactly what a compromise bill might include, under the House version, all families would ultimately 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.

Gov. Jeff Landry held a town hall at a Catholic school in Metairie, and another in Mandeville, to rally support for "education savings accounts" on May 16, 2024.
Aubri Juhasz
Gov. Jeff Landry held a town hall at a Catholic school in Metairie, and another in Mandeville, to rally support for "education savings accounts" on May 16, 2024.

Landry was joined at Thursday’s events by RaeNell Houston, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which enrolls more than 32,000 children across eight parishes.

Houston said she first enrolled her daughter, who has Down syndrome, in public school and later moved her to the Catholic system.

“That was because my husband and I decided that’s what’s best for her and for our family,” she said. “Every parent should have the right to choose.”

Louisiana already has three programs that give the parents of children with special needs and low-income families partial scholarships for private school. Under the House bill, those vouchers would be converted to ESAs and families would get more money, though likely still not enough to cover tuition in full.

“Our public schools do a great job at a lot of things, but they’re not perfect,” Houston said, adding that the Archdiocese isn’t either and can’t serve every child with special needs.

Some of the policy’s fiercest critics are the parents of children with special needs. Their education is often far more costly than the average student and private schools are not required to meet their needs. The only place their rights are protected is in public schools under federal law.

“Bring me something that works,” said Corhonda Corley, the parent of a son who is non-verbal, at a House committee meeting earlier this year. “Bring my child something that works.”

Louisiana schools are funded using a weighted student formula. So when a child leaves, the system loses money. Landry has repeatedly said the program won’t harm public schools financially, but many don’t believe him.

“This tends to be an area of concern that is grounded in reality, but perhaps over amplified in magnitude,” said Joseph Waddington, who studies school choice policies at the University of Notre Dame. “There would have to be a huge outflow of students from a given district for that system to be hurt,” though there is a tipping point, he said.

District leaders argue the larger issue is that Louisiana doesn’t adequately fund its public schools. Prior to the Great Recession, the legislature increased student-based funding by 2.75% each year to account for rising costs.

It has only increased the base once since 2008. Had the regular increases continued, as they have in many other states, Louisiana schools would have received billions more in funding.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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