Go GATOR: Louisiana poised to become 19th state with parent-directed public education funding

A bill to make Louisiana the 19th state allowing parents to direct public education funding to learning options of their choice awaits a signature by a supportive governor.

Right now, 17 states, most recently Georgia, have some sort of education savings account in place, and an 18th, Oklahoma, offers parents an individual tax credit.

In addition to its eye-catching name, Louisiana Giving All True Opportunity to Rise (LA GATOR) scholarship program would eventually be open to all students and has some features that are worth highlighting.

Voucher transition: Starting in the 2025-26 school year, GATOR scholarships would replace the state’s existing voucher program for low-income students, known as School Scholarships for Educational Excellence. Students using the existing vouchers would receive priority in the application process for GATOR scholarships, and receive the same level of funding as they did under the voucher program.

Phasing in options: The state Department of Education would be required to open applications by March 1, 2025. But scholarships in the first year would be reserved for students who plan to use their scholarship funds for a single provider (most likely a private school). Applications for families who plan to use the program to pay multiple service providers would open March 1, 2026.

Public school participation: The bill underlines the possibility that school districts and charter schools could offer classes or other services to scholarship students. It says: “Each public school governing authority may adopt a policy authorizing the acceptance of account funds for providing services covered as qualified education expenses to a participating student who is enrolled part-time in a school under its jurisdiction or who takes individual courses provided by such a school without being enrolled in the school.”

Elastic clause: The bill would allow parents to access specifically authorized expense categories, such as school tuition or curriculum, as well as “Any other educational expenses approved by the state board.” This creates an avenue for the state to approve innovative education offerings that meet the spirit of the law but not the letter.

User reviews: Like similar programs in other states, the Louisiana measure contemplates an online platform where parents can browse education services they pay for with scholarships funds. It would require Louisiana’s platform to “allow parents to publicly rate, review, and share information about participating schools and service providers.”

Autonomy protection: The legislation includes multiple provisions designed to reassure schools and service providers that participating in the scholarship program will not invite increased government regulation. It would direct the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to set rules “in a way that maximizes school and provider participation.” It also stipulates that schools and providers “shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of participating students without governmental control.”

Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry pushed hard for the LA GATOR program and touted its passage in a news release, so his signature is likely. The key remaining question is how much funding lawmakers will set aside for scholarships in the program’s first year.

Under the timelines laid out in the legislation, scholarship applications would debut at the height of carnival season, three days before Mardi Gras. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.

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