Louisiana House Education Committee approves several school choice bills

Published 1:42 pm Saturday, April 29, 2023

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(The Center Square) — Legislation moving through the Louisiana House would expand school choice options for families, and prohibit discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity with students.

The House Education Committee on Tuesday approved two measures designed to open up school choice opportunities for families.

House Bill 98, sponsored by state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, would create a Sunshine Scholarship Program to provide education savings accounts with a student’s per-pupil state funding parents can use to send their children to a school of their choice.

HB 98 would also allow parents to enroll their children in the public school of their choice, regardless of the performance letter grade of the school. Currently, public school students can only move to another public school with letter grades of “A,” “B,” or “C.”

“I believe this bill has the potential to change the lives of thousands of students across the state,” Harris told the committee, citing research on education savings accounts that shows improved academic outcomes, particularly for low-income and minority students.

Harris also pointed to cost savings for taxpayers and educational innovation through increased competition for students created by the accounts.

Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, questioned how the Sunshine Scholarship and other education savings accounts would impact traditional public schools.

“This is strictly about parental choice and their child, where do they think their child gets the best education,” Harris said. “This gives another option and another opportunity to have their child being educated in the manner they want.”

HB98 is supported by the Pelican Institute, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s opposed by the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, and Discovery Schools, among others. The committee approved HB 98 with a 7-4 vote.

The committee on Tuesday also unanimously approved HB 9, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Acadia, to create an Education Scholarship Account Program for students with disabilities. The same bill was approved by the legislature last session, but was vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards because it “would potentially divert Minimum Foundation Program funds (state education funding) for students to attend non-public schools,” he wrote in his veto message.

“We certainly hope for a better outcome this year, because as you heard already, these families need choices,” Erin Bendily, vice president for policy and strategy at the Pelican Institute, testified.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education also supported the bill, while representatives from LASS, and Step Up For Action testified against.

On Wednesday, the same committee voted 7-5 to approve HB 466, sponsored by Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, to prohibit school discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity that are not included in state standards.

“This legislation is strictly based on the child. Our children go to school to learn, to be taught, not to be indoctrinated or confused by anyone else’s ideology,” Horton said. “This is a protection of our basic parental rights that we teach our children certain subjects that aren’t accepted or even included in any of the state standards.”

HB 466 would also prohibit the use of pronouns that do not align with a student’s biological gender, unless requested by a parent in writing. HB 466 further prohibits the required use of those pronouns if it’s contrary to an employee’s religious or moral convictions.

The bill was backed by religious school leaders, Unmask Our Kids Louisiana, Louisiana Citizens Advocacy Group, Louisiana Baptist Convention, and several mothers who testified. Opposition came from 10,000 Women Louisiana, Louisiana Progress, transgender activists, and others, who likened the bill to a similar measure that created controversy in Florida.

HB 466 is now pending on the House floor, while HB 9 and HB 98 were referred to the House Appropriations Committee.