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Louisiana ESA Program Puts Public School Funding and Teacher Salaries at Risk

Gov. Jeff Landry speaks to the Louisiana Legislature at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge on Jan. 15, 2024, at the start of a special session on redistricting and election matters.
Gov. Jeff Landry speaks to the Louisiana Legislature at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge on Jan. 15, 2024, at the start of a special session on redistricting and election matters. / Capital Live Stream

BATON ROUGE, La. — The Louisiana Senate has approved the LA GATOR Education Savings Account (ESA) Program, a controversial initiative endorsed by Gov. Jeff Landry. This program, which redirects state funds from public schools to private schools, aims to offer parents greater educational choices for their children. However, critics warn that the program could severely impact Louisiana's public school system and teacher salaries, especially given lawmakers' recent decision to reject a raise for teachers.

Senate Bill 313 and Its Impact on Louisiana's Public Schools

Senate Bill 313, linked to the ESA program, is scheduled for full implementation by the 2025-26 school year. Initially, it will target current voucher recipients, special education students, and children from low-income families. By its third year, the program will expand to include all students, with projected annual costs between $260 million and $520 million.

Louisiana's public schools, heavily dependent on the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) for funding, could face significant financial challenges due to the ESA program. The state currently allocates nearly $4.1 billion annually to public schools through the MFP. The diversion of these funds to ESAs could leave public schools struggling to sustain operations, programs, and staff.

The Threat to Teacher Salaries in Louisiana

With no raise in sight for teachers, a major concern is the potential reduction in funds available for teacher salaries. Louisiana public school teachers, already earning less than the national average, could see further stagnation or cuts in their pay. This issue is exacerbated by lawmakers' recent refusal to grant a long-requested salary increase for teachers.

"Teachers are the backbone of our education system," said a spokesperson for the Louisiana Association of Educators. "Redirecting funds to private schools undermines the stability of public schools and the livelihoods of those who dedicate their lives to teaching our children."

Accountability Concerns with the ESA Program

The revised ESA bill has also sparked debates over accountability. Initially, the proposal included provisions for standardized testing to ensure that schools receiving ESA funds were held to the same standards as public schools. However, many of these accountability measures were removed, raising concerns about the program's effectiveness and oversight.

"I've never understood why someone would be afraid of accountability for a great idea," said Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, a proponent of the accountability measures.

Broader Implications for Louisiana's Education System

As Louisiana prepares for a constitutional convention in August to potentially re-evaluate funding priorities, the future of public school funding remains uncertain. Gov. Landry has assured that the MFP will not be targeted during the constitutional rewrite, but the approval of the ESA program suggests a shift in legislative priorities that could indirectly affect public education funding.

For now, Louisiana's public schools and teachers face an uncertain future. The ESA program, while providing more options for parents, poses a significant threat to the financial stability and quality of public education in the state. As lawmakers prepare to address next year's budget, they must find a balance that supports school choice without sacrificing the needs of public school students and educators. Despite the pressing need, lawmakers recently rejected a raise for teachers, which could mean a decrease in available funds for teacher salaries, further straining the education system.

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