(The Center Square) — Legislation to allow parents of students struggling to read in public schools to use state funds to pursue other options has cleared the House Education Committee.
The committee voted 6-2 to approve Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, to create the Reading Education Savings Account program.
Students who are not reading at grade level by second or third grade would be eligible for the accounts funded with the per-pupil state allotment for qualified education expenses, which include private school tuition, fees, textbooks, instructional or tutoring services, curriculum, and technological devices.
“I believe if there’s one thing we can do in the world of education … the most important thing is teaching our kids to read,” Hewitt said. “If you can’t read, nothing else matters.”
Hewitt noted that the bill would dedicate the average amount for per-pupil funding of about $5,500 to each account, but would leave local school funding in place. The bill also allows the state to use up to 5% of the funding for administrative expenses to ensure parents are using the money for qualified expenses.
Hewitt pointed to numerous programs approved by the Legislature to improve literacy in public schools, but argued parents of students struggling now can’t afford to wait for the programs to take shape.
“Some members will say ‘why don’t we wait until those things all take place, let’s see if those things work.’ And that’s a reasonable statement to make, unless you’re the parent of a child that’s in second or third grade or maybe kindergarten or first grade that’s not reading,” she said. “And then you have a real sense of urgency for not waiting for the system to work.”
“I think we need to do everything,” Hewitt said. “I think we need to support public education, we need to focus on getting those kids reading. But for those right now today who are in the system that have a very narrow window to learn to read, we need to give them other options and give parents another choice.”
Hewitt previously testified in the Senate that over half of second- and third-graders in Louisiana are not reading at grade level, and touted accountability measures in the bill to ensure it’s working to improve their situation.
“Those children will have to take tests, accountability tests, so we’ll know whether this new school environment is working or not,” she said. “Those providers who are providing that education will also be evaluated to whether or not they’re really performing and doing a good job, if they’re not they’re taken off the approved list.”
Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, raised issues with SB 203 and other bills to establish education savings accounts that divert dollars from public schools.
“I definitely have a concern with all of the ESAs,” she said.
Rep. Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer, noted that the $5,500 for the reading education savings account isn’t enough to cover private school tuition at many institutions, meaning only children of parents who can afford to make up the difference will benefit from the program.
“I’m also concerned … the message that we’re sending to the teachers,” he said, adding that ancillary factors also contribute to the state’s literacy problem.
“This in no way is intended to discredit the work of our teachers,” Hewitt said. “I think in some cases we’ve built a system that hamstrings them a little bit and we need to provide additional resources or eliminate some of the bureaucracy.”
The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education supports SB 203.
“Our BESE leadership believes that parent choice and giving parents every option to provide better education or quality education for their kids is important,” said Ethan Melancon, the board’s legislative liaison.
The Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, the Louisiana Association of Educators, and Students in Public Schools opposed the measure.
SB 203 now heads to the full House for consideration. The bill cleared the Senate earlier this month on a vote of 24-13.