One lawmaker asks: Don’t you think there’s enough choice already

No doubt, the decision to grant private learning options for public school students is a tough one for any lawmaker who has spent a lifetime supporting the neighborhood public school. But the debate on the floor of the Louisiana House today sounded at times almost anachronistic.

The House was hearing a tax credit scholarship bill, HB 621 filed by Rep. Kirk Talbot, a Republican, that aims to give options to low-income students at a scholarship amount, roughly $4,000, that is less than even the state portion of the Louisiana public school formula. Not incidentally, the state’s legislative fiscal office said the program would likely save taxpayers money. (By way of disclosure, we have helped advise Rep. Talbot, who to his credit insisted on strong academic and fiscal accountability provisions in the bill.)

The bill provoked some predictable and reasonable concerns, as opponents wrestled with the potential impact on public schools. But seldom has the line between public and private been drawn so harshly or with such indifference to the needs of students.

Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat and retired oil company spokesperson, challenged the very concept of parental choice: “Don’t you think there’s enough choice already?”

Rep. J. Rogers Pope, a Denham Springs Republican and retired school superintendent, sounded as though he were establishing terms for the war on terrorism: “You’re going to have to answer to the public schools in your district. Either you’re for them or you’re against them.”

Rep. Joe Harrison, a Gray Republican and financial planner, offered a singular gauge on how to measure such legislation (Hint: It’s unrelated to whether children are helped): “This is not the kind of bill that is going to help our system out.”

The bill, incidentally, was approved by a margin of 52-43 but fell one vote short of the absolute majority of the full chamber necessary to pass because 10 representatives were absent. Supporters hope to bring it back for another vote next week.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.