Bookman: Georgia’s $141M voucher program likely mere down payment on what’s to come

A schoolhouse with books superimposed on the front

by Jay Bookman, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 21, 2024

In its attempt to shove school vouchers down the throat of reluctant voters, Georgia Republicans have argued that the state’s existing structure of public schools is not capable of providing an adequate education to many students, especially to those in “failing schools.”

If that’s true, it’s basically an admission of failure by the GOP, since that party has dominated Georgia politics, and Georgia education policy, for more than two decades now. But it also creates a problem of a different sort.

You see, in the words of the Georgia Constitution:

“The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”

Note the terms “primary obligation” and, even more importantly, “adequate public education.” Not private. Public. That’s the duty that the constitution confers upon those in charge.

By telling us that the state is not providing an adequate public education, Georgia’s current political leadership, including Gov. Brian Kemp, is telling us that in its own judgment it is failing to perform its constitutional duties.

That puts them in a bit of a pickle.

In Senate Bill 233, the private-school voucher program that now stands on the precipice of passage, the General Assembly attempts to hand-wave its way out of that dilemma. The bill states that creation of a voucher program – a program supposedly justified because our schools are inadequate — “shall not be construed to imply that a public school did not provide a free and appropriate public education … or constitute a waiver or admission by the state.”

So we are supposed to believe that our public school system is simultaneously failing and not failing.

Here’s what we do know. We know that schools in lower-income areas are usually those most likely to face challenges, and we know that Georgia is one of only six states in the country that does not provide additional state funding to school systems serving large numbers of children from low-income families. The General Assembly could fund such a program, but instead is choosing to fund private-school vouchers.

Under SB 233, it is allocating up to $141 million a year to help students in lower-performing schools “escape” into supposedly better-performing private schools.

(Based on years of research, most of those private schools will not be better-performing.)

And based on the trajectory of voucher programs in other states, that $141 million is a mere down payment on what’s to come. Next year they’ll come back for more, and then more, and then much much more. It happens every time, in every state.

Initially, the Georgia voucher is limited to a maximum of $6,000, plus a $500 transportation subsidy. That $6,000 is nowhere near enough to allow poor families to cover tuition for a quality private-school education, which costs two to five times that much. But it’s a nice subsidy for upper middle-class families already paying for a private-school education, which is how most vouchers will be used.

Under the provisions of SB 233, the only students eligible for vouchers are those who live in school districts ranked in the bottom 25% of Georgia school districts. That provision may seem like a good-faith attempt to limit vouchers to where they would supposedly do the most good, but again, based on the trajectory of other states, the limitation will be only temporary. It will be eliminated as soon as it is politically feasible to do so.

All across the country, it’s the same pattern. What we’re witnessing is the gradual, persistent, conscious erosion of the public education system. And once we allow that foundation to crumble, it will be extremely difficult if not impossible to rebuild. In some states that are farther down that road, we’re already seeing calls to use public tax money to build the physical infrastructure for private schools, which would then be owned not by the taxpayers who paid for them, but by the non-profit or in some cases for-profit private schools.

And here’s what’s most galling: This campaign to deconstruct our public education system – a system described in our state constitution as a primary obligation of state government — is not driven by popular demand. In every state that vouchers have been put on the ballot, they have been thoroughly rejected. Even Georgia Republicans, with an overwhelming advantage in both the House and Senate, can barely scrape together legislative majorities to pass vouchers.

Instead, the campaign is being driven by a relative handful of extremely rich, extremely ideological campaign donors around the country. Their message has been clear in every state that has adopted vouchers: If you want their campaign money, you must do their bidding.

And Gov. Brian Kemp wants their campaign money.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.