(The Center Square) — A bill to create a Reading Education Savings Account Program for struggling students cleared the Louisiana Senate.
Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, with a vote of 24-13 to create accounts parents of students struggling to read can use to improve their education outside of the public school system.
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 tuition, fees, textbooks, instructional or tutoring services, curriculum, and technological devices.
"If you’re a parent of a second- or third-grade student who is not reading on grade level, time is of the essence," Hewitt said on Monday. "You know that if your child is not reading by the fourth grade, they’re destined for a lifetime of challenges."
Hewitt said over half of second- and third-graders in Louisiana are not reading at grade level, and touted the accountability measures in the bill to ensure SB 203 is 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."
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.
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, questioned whether lawmakers have given other programs designed to improve reading enough time to work, but Hewitt countered that parents of struggling students don’t have time to wait it out.
"If you have a child that’s in second or third grade, you’re in crisis mode, you can’t wait … and said I’m going to wait a few years for these programs to work, because now your child is in the fourth grade or fifth grade or whatever and they’ve missed the window," Hewitt said.
"We have a very small window from kindergarten to third grade to get these kids reading on grade level," she said. "And so that’s my sense of urgency is giving them some choices right now and when we get all these programs up and running, I hope we have the best literacy program in the country and we don’t have an ESA account because everybody is going to want to be in our public schools."
Some lawmakers questioned how the bill would impact the retirement system for teachers, while others raised concerns about diverting public funds to private institutions.
"We are institutionalizing defunding public education with an idea we don’t know if it’s going to work or not," said Sen. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans.
"One thing we do know is for those kids who are not reading on grade level, we have to do something now," Hewitt said. "We have to have such a sense of urgency that we’re doing all of the above."
She also stressed that providers for the Reading Education Savings Account program must be approved by the Louisiana Department of Education under the bill, and students who participate will take accountability tests "so we’re going to know if they really did improve or not."
A proposed amendment to siphon a portion of the per-pupil funds for the programs to pay down state school employee retirement obligations failed by a vote of 18-19.
SB 203 now heads to the House for consideration.