By Lisa Moomaw (Tulane University), OPEN Intern
If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that the 2020 Legislative Session was far from typical. Starting on March 16th, the session was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it resumed on May 4th, several bills were added to the agenda in order to address the challenges that schools and students will continue to face in the wake of the pandemic. Other major themes included data collection, discipline, and mental health, all of which are likely to resurface next year. Of the 61 bills that OPEN tracked, only 11 passed the legislature:
- COVID-19 Response Bills – HB 870 (Garofalo, R-103), SB 481 (Fields, D-14), SCR 23 (Fields, D-14), SCR 52 (Fields, D-14), SCR 63 (Jackson, D-34), and SCR 72 (Barrow, D-15): While mostly administrative, these bills allowed schools to respond appropriately to the pandemic by suspending laws about school closure, attendance requirements, and testing as well as extending TOPS deadlines. Furthermore, SCR 52 asks postsecondary institutions to adopt flexible admissions policies, which will help students who are especially impacted by COVID-19, while SCR 63 establishes a task force to make plans for continuing learning in these unusual circumstances. Finally, SCR 72 proposes the possibility of cancelling standardized testing in 2021. The successes of these bills should be celebrated, because addressing the pandemic in a timely manner is key to equity considering the disproportionate that COVID-19 has had on Black and low-income families.
- HB 251 (Hilferty, R-94) renews the Early Childcare Commission. Early childcare access not only supports children’s development and prepares them for K12 education, but also supports families economically by helping parents work. OPEN is excited that this bill will continue the important work of improving early childcare access for all families. More information about early childcare advocacy can be found at the Louisiana Policy Institute and the Agenda for Children.
- HB 173 (James, D-101) increases parole eligibility for juveniles. The criminal justice system often unfairly puts Black youth in prison and keeps them out of school. Additionally, COVID-19 has further revealed the need to lower the number of incarcerated youth in order to keep them safe, considering the disproportionately high infection rates in prisons. The passage of this bill is a big win for criminal justice, but there is still lots of work to be done to stop the school-to-prison pipeline! More resources on this are available via the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
- SB 365 (Cloud, R-28) requires that students be given information about high-demand jobs, which will help them form a plan for after high school. Every student should have the opportunity to leave high school with a postsecondary plan, whether it be trade school, a 2-year degree, or a 4-year college or university. Learning about the jobs available to them will help students with their planning process. Youthforce NOLA is one organization that aims to prepare students for high-demand jobs.
- HB 734 (Brass, D-58) establishes grants for dual enrollment programs, which support students in making their postsecondary plans by giving them college credits. If students want to attend a postsecondary school, entering with college credits may help them save money and even graduate early, making this plan more realistic for low-income students. There is currently a legislative task force looking into addressing inequities in dual enrollment programs, due to present a final report by October this year. To learn more and get involved, visit regents.la.gov or contact the Board of Regents.
- SB 78 (Foil, R-16) is the only bill that we opposed that passed. It allows START college savings money to be used for vouchers. However, OPEN emphasizes that the voucher system is rooted in racism because it has been used by white families to attend white private schools in order to avoid integration.
This year is also a budget year, meaning the legislature has to pass a budget before July 1. Legislators were unable to pass one during the regular session, so they are currently in a special session with plans to debate it Wednesday, June 10. The state is receiving millions in federal aid because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it may not be enough to make up the lost revenue because of the economic crash. Unfortunately, this means proposed increases to funding for early childhood and K12 education are no longer on the table.
The pandemic has revealed some serious problems in the culture of policymaking: namely, a disregard for transparency. The decision to rush to reopen the session in March despite the lockdown, which limited advocates from going to the capitol, allowed legislators to pass laws with less input from the public. Even worse, it was falsely reported that they would begin with considering only emergency bills when in fact they considered others as well. And when OPEN reached out to legislators to ask questions about bills, the majority were unresponsive, even after multiple calls and emails. OPEN would like to thank those who were responsive: Representatives Bacala, Cox, DuBuisson, Dwight, Hilferty, and Hodges and Senator Fields. Overall, though, the deceptive practices demonstrated this legislative session allowed harmful bills such as SB 78 to pass while people were distracted by the pandemic.
Next year, there will be lots of work to be done in order to start reversing this damage. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown to impact some groups more than others–Black and low-income people have experienced disproportionately high rates of death and serious illness. In its wake, policy that moves toward dismantling systemic racism and fostering trauma-informed practices in schools will continue to be incredibly important next session. Stay tuned for more information about how to support advocacy for education equity and justice!