5 things about the school voucher bill Georgia lawmakers just sent to Kemp

State Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, left, is congratulated by Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, following the passage of Senate Bill 233, which would give families $6,500 vouchers for private school tuition and home schooling, Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta. Dolezal is the sponsor of the bill. The bill now moves to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

State Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, left, is congratulated by Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, following the passage of Senate Bill 233, which would give families $6,500 vouchers for private school tuition and home schooling, Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in the Senate at the Capitol in Atlanta. Dolezal is the sponsor of the bill. The bill now moves to Gov. Brian Kemp for his signature. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Private school students in Georgia could receive direct state subsidies to educate thousands of students, under new legislation adopted Wednesday.

Senate Bill 233 would establish a taxpayer-funded program that might initially cost $140 million a year. It requires Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature to become law, but he has been advocating for the measure. It would establish a “voucher” program for general education students beginning in the fall of 2025 and lasting for a decade unless lawmakers extend the expiration date.

The Senate originally passed SB 233 last year, but it failed in the House. A heavily revised version cleared the House last week, returning the bill to the Senate for final approval.

Republicans have been trying for years to pass such legislation. The original author of this latest version, Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, noted the failure of a similar bill during his first year in the Senate.

“It’s been a six-year journey for me and a lot of people around the state,” he said, urging Democrats to vote for it because “these parents asking for help are your constituents.”

But as they had in the past, Democrats voted in a bloc against it in the party-line vote.

“We’re handing out money to wealthy families,” said Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, who noted that low-income families would struggle to cover the cost between the voucher amount and full tuition.

Democrats said the money for vouchers would contribute to underfunding of public schools.

The measure passed 33-21.

What is a voucher?

Vouchers have existed in other states for decades. They are taxpayer payments for private schooling. Wisconsin passed the first such program in 1989. Numerous other states followed. In 2007, Georgia passed a law that established a voucher program limited to students with disabilities. In 2021, Kemp signed Senate Bill 47, expanding that Special Needs Scholarship Program to include students with a diagnosis for a variety of conditions — from autism and cancer to drug or alcohol abuse.

Georgia also has a private school scholarship program funded by taxpayers who get a full state tax credit for their contributions. The Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit was enacted in 2008 with a $50 million annual cap, but lawmakers have gradually expanded it, first to $58 million and then to $100 million. Their last increase, in 2022, raised the cap to $120 million. Because of this indirect revenue stream, the Georgia Supreme Court has said it is not publicly funded and therefore isn’t a traditional voucher, though that’s what critics have labeled it.

Who is eligible for this new voucher?

Any child who lives in the attendance zone of a public school performing in the bottom 25% on state measures would be eligible for this new subsidy, with certain caveats. The student would have to have attended their local public school for a year, unless they are a rising kindergartner. The parents would have to have been a Georgia resident for a year, unless one is on active duty in the military. Priority would go to families that earn less than 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $120,000 for a family of four.

How about the money?

This program could be funded at 1% of what the Quality Basic Education formula says lawmakers should put into the public education budget, which is expected to exceed $13 billion next year. Midyear adjustments typically add hundreds of millions of dollars. So proponents estimate it’ll cost about $140 million initially, enough for about 21,000 students. But funding would be at the discretion of the Legislature and governor each year.

Parents would be entitled to $6,500 a year per student who leaves — or in the case of kindergartners, never enters — their local public school. Unlike traditional vouchers, this one could be used for more than tuition. The legislation would establish “promise scholarship accounts” controlled by parents. They could also spend the money on costs associated with homeschooling, such as books, tutors or online classes. And they could use it to pay for doctors, transportation, account fund managers and other costs. The legislation follows laws in other states such as Florida, where allowable expenses included theme park passes, televisions and paddleboards. Those items are not on Georgia’s list, but parents could spend money on expenses not foreseen in SB 233 as long as the expenditures are approved by a state oversight committee.

Who would oversee the money?

An organization to be called the Georgia Education Savings Authority would manage the program. The authority would fall under the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which oversees education funds generated by the Georgia Lottery. (The commission’s board would also serve on the authority’s board.) The executive director of the authority, or a designee, would chair a parent review committee that would review and approve expenditures.

Is this a good use of taxpayer money?

The academic results for large voucher programs in other states are mixed, at best. Some older, smaller voucher programs produced positive results. But test scores fell in states with expanded programs, such as Ohio and Louisiana. In some cases, the academic declines for voucher recipients were larger than those attributed to the pandemic.

Public schools that lost students to vouchers tended to improve a little, but that correlation hasn’t been studied much, so the impact of the competition isn’t entirely clear.

Critics of vouchers contend students would be better off if they stayed in their public school and if the state spent more money on public education. They note that private school tuition can cost tens of thousands of dollars and is beyond the reach of many lower-income families, even with a $6,500 subsidy. They also say the program would erode public schools for students left behind because each public school would lose state funding for students who take a voucher. They also note that private schools are not accountable to taxpayers.

SB 233 attempts to address concerns about accountability by requiring testing of students in schools that enroll voucher students. However, those schools could choose one of several tests, only one of them being the state-standardized Milestones administered in Georgia public schools. That lack of uniformity would likely make it impossible to compare the performance of private schools to that of public schools. Also, the data would be presented to the public only in aggregate, so the performance of individual private schools would be known only to the state officials collecting the data.