In a victory for Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved a bill Thursday night that would expand state aid for some students to switch from struggling public schools to private and parochial classrooms.
The vote was 61-41 after nearly 12 hours of debate.
The proposal, House Bill 976, next faces action in the state Senate.
Moments after the vote the House began debate on a second Jindal education priority.
That plan, House Bill 974, would make it harder for public school teachers to earn and retain a form of job protection called tenure, and was sure to spark still more controversy.
The first measure tackled would allow low-income students in “C,” “D” and “F” schools, as rated by the state, to qualify for state aid to attend private schools.
However, the House adopted an amendment that would give priority to students in “D” and “F” schools, mostly because of limited space expected to be available in private schools.
A later bid to remove students in “C” schools narrowly failed.
Backers said the new option is long overdue, especially at a time when 44 percent of public schools in Louisiana are rated “D” and “F.”
House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, told the House that he recently came across a 1960 campaign flier that said the state needed to improve public education.
“We have a chance to do it today,” said Carter, sponsor of the bill.
Opponents charged that the legislation offers students in struggling schools false optimism, in part because only about 2,000 students out of 380,000 eligible are expected to qualify initially if the bill wins final approval.
“We need to offer hope but it needs to be real hope,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Bel Edwards, of Amite, the unofficial leader of opposition forces.
The day-long debate — highly unusual in the second week of a legislative session — played out with teachers in House galleries at the outset and key Jindal aides monitoring the debate from the side gallery.
Jindal traveled to Kingsport, Tenn., on Thursday to attend the Sullivan County Reagan Day Dinner.
He was set to return to Baton Rouge on Thursday.
Jindal’s fellow Republicans control the House, and support for the measure was evident throughout the day.
Repeated bids by Democrats to add new restrictions to the bill late in the day and Thursday evening all failed, most by roughly 2-1 margins.
Jindal contends the bill is needed to give students and families a way out of struggling public schools.
Opponents say the measure is unconstitutional, in part because it would use state aid long reserved for public schools to subsidize tuition for students to attend private and parochial schools.
In one of the most contentious debates, the House voted 81-19 for an amendment that backers said would ban the use of locally-approved public school tax dollars from helping to finance the aid, which is variously called vouchers and scholarships.
“If you raise local dollars it cannot be carried outside the district and cannot be used inside the district for these scholarships,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro and sponsor of the addition.
The amendment says that “no locally levied school district tax revenue shall be transferred” to any school that takes voucher students.
But Edwards argued that Fannin’s change failed to ensure such a ban because the local tax dollars are mixed with state money and not required to be transferred.
“My concern is with the word transfer,” he said.
Edwards also said state Superintendent of Education John White, who is Jindal’s chief public schools lieutenant, acknowledged as much in testimony last week to the House Education Committee.
“What we are saying is we don’t care about local funding and local control of tax dollars,” Edwards said of the bill.
White disputes Edwards’ view of how the vouchers would be financed.
Later in the day, Edwards’ bid to add new restrictions on how local school tax dollars would be used was rejected 47-50.
However, late Thursday night the issue surfaced again amid concerns that Fannin’s amendment failed to achieve what backers thought it would do, meaning the topic could spark still more squabbles.
The bill is also aimed at expanding the number of charter schools, which are public schools overseen by non-governmental boards.
In addition, it would allow a majority of parents with students in failing schools — called parent trigger — to try to place the school under state oversight and corrective action faster than is allowed now.
However, most of Thursday’s debate focused on whether to allow more students to attend private and parochial schools, including what sort of oversight needs to accompany the new setup.
The House adopted an amendment that would require state education officials to devise an accountability system for students who attend private and parochial schools with state aid.
Critics said the addition failed to go far enough, and that specific rules and consequences needed to be spelled out if the students fail to show gains.
Under the bill, subsidized students would take the same standardized tests as public school students, with some differences.
For instance, fourth and eighth-graders in public schools have to pass LEAP, which measures math and English skills, to move to the fifth and ninth grade.
Voucher students would not face any such rule.
In addition, private schools that accept the students would not face annual letter grades from the state, which public schools do.
An amendment that would have generally aligned testing rules for subsidized students with those in public schools, including high-stakes tests and letter grades for schools, was rejected by the House 34-61.
The House approved an amendment aimed at preserving the law if a court tosses out some sections of the measure.
State Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, said he offered the clause because of threats by opponents of the bill to file a lawsuit if it wins final approval.
“The only reason this is being brought is because some opponents of the bill think it is unconstitutional,” Seabaugh said.
State Rep. Harold Ritchie, D-Bogalusa, tried to eliminate students in “C” schools from the bill.
“If we have such a limited number of spaces available we need to be concentrating on ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools,” Ritchie told the House.
“A ‘C’ school is not a failing school,” he said. “‘C’ schools should have never been included.”
The House rejected Ritchie’s amendment 46-52.
Under the bill, low-income students are defined as those in a family of four that earns around $50,000-$55,000 per year.
A similar aid bill and a nearly identical teacher tenure measure have been approved by the Senate Education Committee and are awaiting action in the full Senate.
However, Jindal administration officials are expected to provide a briefing for lawmakers on details of the bills, which is expected to delay any final Senate votes for a week or two.