State Senate rejects voucher bill, but it may be back

In a 28 to 25 vote and after intense debate, the Georgia Senate rejected a controversial voucher bill today. Up against the clock to pass at least one chamber to remain viable, the bill could be reconsidered later this week.

The Republican-backed Senate Bill 173 drew protests from Democrats that it would divert hundreds of millions from public schools. Still, the legislation had the support of Gov. Brian Kemp so the close vote and the defeat came as a surprise.

The Democrats’ cost predictions were not pulled from the air; an analysis of a similar House bill by the state auditor’s office found the program would require $48 million of tax dollars in its first year, rising to a maximum of about $543 million in a decade as more students participate.

At the same time, the state has had to back off the $5,000 teacher raises promised by Kemp, Republicans are proposing to direct millions away from public education, said Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson, D-Stone Mountain.

The voucher would represent the state contribution to education, which averages around $5,500 a year.  (The voucher would vary by district.)

Parents could use the money to underwrite private school tuition, tutoring, home schooling, virtual schools or learning materials.

Arizona is the original model for this program. That state has experienced fraud in how parents spent the tax dollars. According to a recent report in the Arizona Republic:

Arizona parents have made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated by the state's school-voucher style program, and state officials have recouped almost none of that money, a new Auditor General report has found.

The findings are the latest blow to a program that Republicans have touted as a model for school choice that has been replicated nationwide, but has faced serious questions about lax financial oversight.

“We have a constitutional imperative to provide an adequate public education to the children of this state. This is not about freedom, liberty and opportunity. Public money should not be going to private schools that are not accountable,” said Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, who has had children in both public and private schools.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, said, “I believe the accountability that the free market provides in many cases is more powerful. Our goal is to educate children. What this bill captures is the idea that parents and children know what is best.”

“When it comes to school choice, we have segregation. We have the haves and the have nots: this is empowering for those families do not have the financial ability necessary to make choices,” said Dolezal.

Opponents countered the voucher would only help the haves, given private school tuitions of $18,000 a year with the cost soaring to $30,000 for specialty schools for students with learning issues.

“This allows anyone to take their children out of public schools to private schools,” said Henson, “Private school tuition is far above the amount of money they will be getting from these vouchers. That means higher income people will be going from public schools to private schools.”

Dolezal cited a young man I profiled who was among the first Georgia students to use a special needs voucher to attend a Catholic school and was now graduating college.

The AJC had talked to his mother in 2007, the year that Georgia approved its special-needs scholarship, essentially a school voucher program for children with disabilities. I checked back with the family in May.

Dolezal mentioned facts from my story, including that the state voucher did not cover the private school cost but that the student received aid from the school. This was proof, he said, that low-income students will be able to attend private schools with the voucher because those schools will close the gaps with scholarship aid.

Here is what Dolezal did not include from my story: This was a family with some resources of its own to expend. They received between $2,000 and $3,000 a year from the state special needs voucher. Yes, the school helped out with some aid, but the parents also contributed.

What about parents who can’t contribute? “Our charge is to look at all the students, and it is obvious this program is not going to help all the students,” said Henson.

As Cherokee superintendent Brian V. Hightower told parents in a note:

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.

Here is a good summation of concerns over the bill from the Professional Association of Georgia Educators:

-SB 173 hurts students by diverting critical financial resources from Georgia public schools, which serve 1.7 million students. Georgia already has two private school voucher programs. Vouchers have not proven to increase student academic outcomes as evidenced by studies in Washington, DC, and Indiana. 
-SB 173 hurts taxpayers – Senators have dodged repeated requests for a fiscal note, which would demonstrate the official cost estimate regarding implementation of SB 173, on the current version of the bill. However, a state fiscal note released Feb. 28 on a previous version of the legislation showed costs could balloon to $271.3 million in the next decade from funds otherwise allocated to public schools. 
-SB 173 is opposed by PAGE, the Georgia PTA, and every other major Georgia education group.