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Senate Finance Committee advances education savings account bill

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(The Center Square) — The Louisiana Senate Finance Committee advanced an amended bill this week to create a universal education savings account program.

The committee reported Senate Bill 313 favorably by a 4-3 vote on Thursday and now it is headed to the floor for a potential vote.

SB 313 is sponsored by Sen. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, and would create the Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise program.

The program would allocate the state per-student cost plus a special education weight of 150% for those children to parents for qualifying education expenses such as tuition.

Under the bill, the LA GATOR funds would have to be separate from the state’s constitutionally-mandated K-12 funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would also have to craft and enact rules if the bill is signed into law.

Like its companion bill HB 745, SB 313 would replace an existing voucher program for students in failing schools with a universal program in a three-phase program, covering those in poverty and with a disability first before extending to all students.

Edmonds said that “we’ve got work to do” on the bill and that he’d be willing to “work with anybody.”

The House passed their version by a 71-32 vote April 8 and has been referred to the House Committee on Education.

Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, tried to amend the bill to require participating schools in the ESA program to meet the same accountability standards as mandated under the state’s existing voucher program for children in poverty. She later agreed to remove her amendment despite her concerns that the bill would allow the BESE to report back to the Legislature on what accountability standards might need to be required for the program.

The cost to taxpayers for an ESA program could be considerable. According to a brief filed by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, cost could be considerable at $520 million annually to provide a minimum scholarship of $5,190 per year for students who aren’t disabled ($15,099) or living in poverty ($7,550).

The fiscal note prepared by legislative staff says SB 313’s “specific costs are unknown at this time.” The original fiscal note for HB 745 estimated the program’s cost at $297 million per year, but the latest one puts a minimum, annual price tag of $259.8 million.