Op eds

This op-ed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) first appeared in the Daily Advertiser on November 22, 2023. The piece also appeared in the Shreveport Times, Houma Today, The Daily Comet, The Town Talk, The News-Star, and Daily World.

As students eagerly await the holiday break, Louisiana parents may soon be catching a break of their own: school choice.

For years, most Louisiana families have had little to no choice about where their child attends school. Parents can choose among 40 types of cereal to feed their kids for breakfast, but many have almost no say about which school their child spends seven hours every day—even if that school has proven it cannot help their child learn.

The results have been dismal. Roughly half of Louisiana’s students in grades K-3 are not reading at grade level. According to the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) test, only one-third of students in grades 3-12 are at grade level in the four subjects test examined. Louisiana has 24 school systems in which fewer than one in four students have proficient LEAP exam scores. 

No one is coming to save our schools in Louisiana but ourselves. If we want a prosperous future for Louisiana, we can’t keep trapping students in classrooms where they can’t learn. It’s time for school choice in Louisiana.

School choice programs vary, but they all boil down to this foundational principle: Parents should be able to take their children out of failing schools and place them in schools that can help those children thrive. School board members have to earn parents’ votes, and schools should have to earn each student’s enrollment.

Today, the average school in Louisiana has three sources of funding. Roughly 11% of its funding is from the federal government, 44% is from the state, and 45% is from local governments.  Local dollars typically stay with the school system in a particular town or parish, but officials have the right and ability to allocate state and federal dollars differently.

Under school choice policies, the Louisiana legislature could choose to let the state and federal dollars follow the student using a voucher. Parents can decide which school is best equipped to help their children succeed and give their voucher funding to that school.

If parents are happy with their child’s school, the student can stay put. If they recognize that another school is a better fit, they can use their voucher at a different traditional public school, put it toward private school tuition, or give it to a charter school. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate independently of the state. Rather than following government orders, these schools can develop their own curriculum and exams to meet students’ needs.

States that have embraced school choice have had tremendous success. Florida’s fourth graders, for example, ranked third in the nation in reading and fourth in math, according to the Nation’s Report Card. Other pro-school choice states including Iowa, North Dakota, and Utah were among the top 10 states, too. 

Closer to home, Mississippi jumped from 50th in the nation to 35th after passing a voucher program and implementing a policy that refused to allow third graders to move onto the fourth grade unless they could read at grade level. Mississippi made all this progress while spending less per student than all but four other states. It’s no wonder that 75% of Louisiana parents with school-aged children support school choice.

This year, Louisiana followed Mississippi’s lead and adopted H.B. 12, a policy that will help ensure every student can read before fourth grade. There is still a lot we can do to improve schools in Louisiana through school choice.

We’re about to have a legislature in Louisiana. I can’t speak for them all, but I know many lawmakers who are ready to give power back to parents through school choice.

School choice recognizes two truths that are key to Louisiana’s future: Every child can learn, and competition makes everyone better. School choice gives parents power, students hope, and every school a greater incentive to help young people succeed.