House Amends Education Savings Account Bill

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BATON ROUGE (The Center Square) — A day after the Senate Finance Committee killed two bills to establish Education Savings Accounts for certain students, lawmakers in the House voted to attach the same to a separate ESA bill from the Senate.

Representatives voted 70-26 on Thursday to approve Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, after amending the legislation to expand it significantly.

SB 203 initially created ESAs parents can use for students who are not reading at grade level by third grade, allowing them to use about $5,500 in state aid for educational expenses outside of the public school system.

The bill is one of several that moved through the legislative process during the current session to create ESAs for different demographics of students struggling in public schools to provide parents with new options that better suit their children.

The majority of the ESA bills cleared the House and Senate Education Committee, but the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday voted to hold two of the ESA bills for study. Another to create ESAs for students with disabilities, House Bill 194, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Butler, R-Ville Platte, was approved by the committee.

The bills held by the committee included HB 33, sponsored by Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, to create ESAs for children of military families, those in foster care, and students attending D- or F-rated schools that have been denied a transfer to higher-rated schools; as well as HB 452, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Freiberg, R-Baton Rouge, to create ESAs for students with at least two documented incidents of bullying, or any student who is the victim of sexual assault.

Freiberg offered both bills as an amendment to SB 203 as the House considered the legislation for final passage and the amendment passed without objection. The House also added 16 co-authors to the bill.

All of the ESA bills are supported by the Pelican Institute and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and others. The bills are opposed by the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, Louisiana Association of Educators and public school advocates.

SB 203 is now pending a concurrence vote in the Senate, where it’s unclear how the amendment will be received. HB 194 is also pending approval from the full Senate.

Both Freiberg and DeVillier urged Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, to approve their bills in committee, but White cited uncertainty on how the legislation would impact state finances and a lack of time to investigate before the current session ends on June 6.

“Understand our position,” White said. “We received 200 or 300 bills in the last day. It’s impossible to go through them all one by one and figure out how to finance them and that’s our job to finance them.”

“It’s not a bad bill,” he told DeVillier, “but I think that all these bills we’ve got to look at them. I think the state has to look at them and see what they’re doing, to our finances, to our schools and where we are.”

A broader bill to provide ESAs as an option for all students, HB 824, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Schlegel, R-Jefferson, was voluntarily deferred by Schlegel in late April.

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