Lawmakers ought to learn how education works before pushing vouchers

A change in leadership under the Gold Dome has meant new members on both the House and Senate education committees, many of whom are unfamiliar with the policies and practices in public education.

Credit: Casey Sykes for the AJC

Credit: Casey Sykes for the AJC

A change in leadership under the Gold Dome has meant new members on both the House and Senate education committees, many of whom are unfamiliar with the policies and practices in public education.

I've been watching the meetings of the House and Senate education committees, both of which lost seasoned leaders this year.  Longtime Gwinnett Rep. Brooks Coleman retired from the House and thus the House Education chairmanship, and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins of Cobb now leads the higher education committee instead of K-12.

Their absence is sorely felt and their wisdom sorely missed, especially with all the new members on the two committees.

While the new committee members from both parties seem earnest, they come across as unfamiliar with what many teachers would deem the basic workings of public education.

In the Feb. 5 joint meeting of the House and Senate education committees, members questioned Georgia Department of Education officials about what tests the state gave and when. One member asked, "Who has access to CCRPI reports? Is it just educators?  Or can parents see them?"

During a presentation today by state Rep. Tommy Benton of his bill on appeals of teacher evaluations, a lawmaker asked about an organization cited in the legislation that she didn't recognize.

"On line 36, who is the Professional Standards Commission?" she asked Benton, who explained the PSC oversees the preparation, certification and continued licensing of Georgia teachers.

Given the unfamiliarity of lawmakers with Georgia education practice and policy, this ideally ought to be a legislative session devoted to learning and listening. Yet, with the backing of the governor, lawmakers in both chambers are considering sweeping and controversial voucher bills.

As the AJC has reported:

If either bill becomes law, it'll be the first time that the general population of public school students would be eligible to go to a private school with a tuition subsidy straight from the state. The legislation would establish "scholarship" accounts enabling parents to use the portion of the money their local school district gets from the state. Parents wouldn't get the cash, but they would get to direct the money to a private school for tuition or to other providers for things such as textbooks and tutoring.

Georgia already has a private school scholarship program, but it is funded by tax credits rather than by direct state payments. There's also a small direct-payment scholarship program, but it is only for students with learning disabilities.

There's been no financial analysis of the Senate version, but House Bill 301 would require about $48 million in the first year, rising to a maximum of about $543 million in a decade as more students participate.

SB 173, the voucher bill sponsored by Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, is likely to be voted on by the full Senate Tuesday morning.

I’d like to share a note sent to Cherokee County parents from Cherokee Superintendent Brian V. Hightower on this voucher zealotry:

New legislation in both the House and Senate is promoting a voucher program described as an "Educational Savings Account" (ESA). If this legislation passes, state taxpayer dollars that could be used to fund public schools, including CCSD, instead will be given to private schools and directly to home-school parents.

This proposal stands to drain more than $54 Million over 10 years from the Cherokee County School District alone (close to $2 Billion statewide), not counting the impact of existing vouchers for special needs students and existing tax breaks and shelters for private schools. The projected losses remind us of the "austerity budget cuts," which the state only this year lifted, after 10 years of high class size, furlough days and other negative impacts on teaching and learning.

To give you some perspective, $5 million more a year would allow us to hire more than 80 additional teachers, school counselors and police officers. Hiring more teachers, school counselors and police officers has never been more important given rising concerns over students' emotional and mental health and school safety and security. The Governor proposed hiring another counselor for each high school, but since has opted against it... due to cost ($23 Million statewide annually), despite that the financial impact for these vouchers could pay for those school counselors and more improvements.

Supporters of these vouchers, including a Cherokee County state representative who proposed one of the bills, contend they "save" local school districts money by not requiring they educate those students... but when a few students leave a classroom, there are no operational savings – just losses. We still must pay the same operating bills and maintenance costs. And these funding losses lower the quality of educational services for all students. Independent research (as compared to supporters' special-interest group-funded reports) shows vouchers don't yield a positive return on such a costly investment.

In reality, what vouchers like these do is take tax dollars paid not just by families, but also by businesses and industries, to ensure a community's public schools are high quality and graduating educated workers and productive citizens... and instead redistributes that public wealth to individuals (including those who already can afford private school tuition and/or the ability to stay home to home-school) and provide public assistance to private for-profit schools.

Our School Board and I are firmly against these proposals and have shared this opinion with our Cherokee County Legislative Delegation. If you feel the same way, please consider contacting them using the email addresses and phone numbers in our School Board's Legislative Partnership Priorities.


Dr. Brian V. Hightower