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Op-Ed: ESA program could help improve outcomes for Louisiana students

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With a new administration and the regular legislative session underway, lawmakers are eager to discuss ways to improve education in Louisiana. Fortunately, this year, they have an opportunity to finally establish a universal education savings account program, giving all Louisiana parents the freedom to choose the education setting that best fits their child’s needs.

Two pieces of legislation are making their way through the capitol to establish a universal ESA, Rep. Julie Emerson’s House Bill 745 and Sen. Rick Edmond’s SB 313. If passed, these bills would have a phased-in three year approach and would grow over time to allow every child in Louisiana to have a choice in their education.

These programs equip parents who apply for the program with a government-authorized savings account from which they may purchase qualified educational resources and services.

The proposed Louisiana ESA program would allow parents to pay for things like school tuition, tutoring, therapies for students with special needs, curriculum, etc., based on their child’s needs. ESA programs already exist in 13 states, and Louisiana could be the 12th state to establish a program that is available to all students.

Research from other states sheds light on the positive impact ESAs can have on student achievement and parental empowerment. Of the 187 empirical research studies exploring the impact of school choice programs on important outcomes — including participant test scores, parent satisfaction, public school student test scores, fiscal effects, and more — 162 found positive effects.

Allowing funds to follow students who are not being served in their current situation will allow a higher amount of funds per pupil to remain in public schools to support the students remaining.

Passing flexible programs like an education savings account allows families to use their funds to find alternate forms of education if they cannot find a school to fit their needs.

In places that have passed school choice, rural areas have seen increases in education providers overtime, thus showing that the market for options will meet families’ demands.

While the potential benefits of ESAs are clear, it’s essential to address the challenges faced by the existing voucher program in Louisiana. The Louisiana Scholarship Program, aimed at low-income and/or students with exceptionalities, underperformed compared to similar voucher programs in other states.

This was primarily because of stringent regulations imposed on participating nonpublic schools, such as mandatory alignment with public school standards like state standardized testing and excessive participation requirements.

While ensuring student learning is crucial, it’s equally vital to grant nonpublic schools’ autonomy to adapt and cater to families’ diverse needs.

Choices are needed in Louisiana more than ever before. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 28% of Louisiana fourth graders are proficient in reading and only 27% are proficient in math. Of the state’s eighth graders, 26% are proficient in reading and 18% proficient in math.

Although Louisiana has made some improvements in recent years for overall K-12, an ESA program would be a lifeline to those families whose students are not being served by the current public school system.

Regular polling in Louisiana consistently shows strong parental support for education choice and savings accounts. Last month, 74% of parents expressed support for ESAs when provided with a definition.

Education savings accounts are popular, and the Louisiana legislature has the opportunity this year to pass a program that empowers parents.

Louisiana parents do not have to feel helpless when stuck in a school that is not meeting their student’s needs.

In passing an ESA in Louisiana this session, the Pelican State has the opportunity to usher in a new era of educational empowerment for its students and truly put the decision-making power in parents’ hands.

Nathan Sanders is resident of Walker, La. and a policy and advocacy director at EdChoice, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to advance educational freedom and choice for all students as a pathway to successful lives and a stronger society.