Sunday, May 19, 2024
Sunday, May 19, 2024

LA GATOR, ESAs, and School of Choice

by KAREN LAGRANGE COX

The Louisiana House of Representatives passed House Bill (HB) 745 on April 8, 2024, to give parents a choice in their child’s education. The bill will go to the Louisiana Senate.

HB 745 was primarily sponsored by Louisiana State Representative Julie Emerson of District 39. It would create the Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise (LA GATOR) Scholarship (or Savings) Program to provide a universal Education Savings Accounts (ESA) program for K-12 students. The Senate has its version of LA GATOR with Senate Bill (SB) 313. HB 745 does not include ESA funding for home-schooled students. SB 313 proposes to allow ESAs for home-schooled students.

ESAs would allow public money to follow the student to the school of the parent’s choice, although any school of choice would have to accept the student. ESAs can also be used to pay for education-related items outside of tuition, such as tutoring, school uniforms, computers, and textbooks.

There may be situations where a school’s tuition fee exceeds the funds available in a child’s ESA, with some families unable to afford the preferred school. As a result, they may have to keep their child in the public school system.

Superintendent of Lafayette Parish School System, Francis Touchet, told BY Local News, “I support the idea of the money following the students, but I have concerns about the lack of accountability for schools that receive funds from the Education Savings Account (ESA). Public schools are held accountable for their performance, but with ESA, the money will follow the student to the school of their choice, and these schools may not have the same level of accountability. Schools receiving the ESA funds may not be required to administer the same tests as public schools, which in essence could allow parents to opt their child out of accountability.”

In the case of a student with disabilities who has special needs, the school of choice would have to be capable of providing for those needs and accepting the student. According to the Louisiana School Boards Association website, “parents will be mandated to formally waive the services to which their children are entitled as a condition of their child’s eligibility to receive a LA GATOR ESA.” [source] If the school of choice cannot or does not provide for those needs, the student with disabilities may not have the option to attend a school of their choice outside of public schools.

If a large percentage of regular education students leave the public school system, and if the majority of students with disabilities have to stay in public schools, this could potentially leave students with disabilities segregated from being in an education environment with typical peers, which is contrary to the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This may result in the students with special needs not being educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), which may limit their opportunities to succeed.

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Samantha Singletary of Sunset, Louisiana, expressed concern about ESAs for students with disabilities. She recently penned a Letter to the Editor: A Word Of Caution for GATOR Scholarships and Students with Exceptionalities. Singletary, a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and a parent of a daughter with disabilities, stated, “So where does this leave parents of students with exceptionalities? And what can we do to protect our children’s IDEA rights and FAPE or Free and Appropriate Public Education? ” Read full Letter to the Editor>>

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