by Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
March 20, 2023
A bill to expand Georgia’s school voucher program moved forward in a House subcommittee Monday with a boost from powerful Republicans. It is expected to get a full committee hearing Tuesday ahead of a potential House vote.
Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal’s Senate Bill 233 would provide $6,000 to parents in the state’s lowest performing public schools to pull their children out and send them to private school.
“We have 1.7 million children, Mr. Chairman, as you know, in our public school system,” Dolezal said. “And our public school system is a fantastic resource for the vast, vast, vast majority of those students. All four of my children either do or will attend public school. The reality is, though, that public school is not the best fit for every child. And despite our best attempts to provide a fantastic public education opportunity for students, the reality is that for some students, a different path is better.”
The scholarship, which passed the Senate last month, would be offered to the families of children enrolled in public schools ranked in the bottom quarter of the state by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Participants would receive quarterly payments into a special account that would be limited to qualified educational expenses including tuition, private tutoring or therapy.
Dolezal said the $6,000 figure amounts to less than the average state portion of per-student spending. He argues that public schools will benefit from students who use the program, as they will still receive local tax dollars for those students.
Opponents dispute that math, arguing that one student’s departure will not have an impact on big costs like teacher pay, transportation and energy. The state’s funding formula allocates more to some students than others, for example, a kindergartner receives a larger share than a high schooler, and a student in special education receives more than one in regular education. Opponents said the state should focus on improving public schools rather than sending money to private institutions with less accountability.
The two sides debated in a crowded committee room at the state Capitol, where about 40 people signed up to speak, including students, teachers and parents.
The average private school tuition in Georgia is $11,541 per year, according to Private School Review, and prices range from $1,042 to over $57,000. Opponents like Sa’Real McCrae, a Georgia State University freshman and lobbyist for the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, said the payments will not cover tuition at most schools and only benefit relatively well-off families.
“Me and my classmates attended classes and trailers, rats roamed our halls, and our counselors could barely manage their caseloads,” she said. “I had no other option. My single mother could not afford private school tuition for me or any of her three children, even with a voucher. Bills like these divert funds from public schools, and they make it harder for students like me to get the education we deserve.”
Rockdale County Schools Superintendent Terry Oatts said he fears the bill will withhold funds from schools that could most use them and place children with special needs into schools that do not have the same legal guardrails as public ones.
“It threatens to increase achievement disparity by targeting the most struggling schools for voucher access, which could predictably have the impact of inducing what I call bright flight,” he said. “Perhaps most disheartening, it forces families of students with specific learning needs and some with disabilities to choose between getting their (individualized education plan) accommodations or the voucher.”
Cora Gorlich, a student at SOAR Academy, which is a private school in Evans, said she’s witnessed public school students transfer in with great success, and she hopes the bill will help more children find a school where they can feel at home.
“I’ve seen them come in with regrets of trying to even fit into those types of schools,” she said. “And then after one day of being there as a test day, they thrive. They want to go here, and they can with this bill because, like stated, some people cannot afford it without this help. And with this help, it will help students of the minority to focus more on education than what they’re going to pay.”
The bill passed 7-5 with the help of Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and Majority Leader Chuck Efstration.
Jones is a member of the House Education Committee but not the subcommittee that heard the bill Monday, and Efstration is not a member of the committee. According to House rules, the speaker pro tem and majority leader are considered standing members of all committees and subcommittees, but they do not typically take part in meetings.
Brunswick Republican Rep. Rick Townsend bucked his party by voting against the measure.
Townsend, who said he has a daughter with a learning disorder, asked Dolezal about private schools’ ability to accept or reject children with special needs. Voucher opponents often argue that private school students give up on protections based on factors like race, gender, religion or ability.
Dolezal said the bill would not require schools to change their admissions criteria, but he said that some private schools cater specifically to children with learning needs, and Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship voucher is available to public school students with disabilities.
The full House Education Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday. Lawmakers suggested they would propose amendments to the bill, which means a revised version could need reapproval from the Senate if it passes the House. March 29 is the final day of the Legislative session.
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