Georgia House votes to expand subsidies for private school tuition

On Thursday, March 3, 2022, the Georgia House voted to expand a taxpayer-funded private school scholarship program. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

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On Thursday, March 3, 2022, the Georgia House voted to expand a taxpayer-funded private school scholarship program. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Legislation still must pass state Senate

School voucher legislation died in Georgia’s Legislature last week after a political misstep by proponents, but that didn’t stop lawmakers from throwing their support behind a massive expansion of tuition subsidies for private schools.

The Georgia House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation that doubles the cap on tax credits for contributions to the Georgia student scholarship program, raising it to $200 million over five years.

Teachers and other public school advocates consider the program a voucher, but the state Supreme Court ruled five years ago that it differs from classic vouchers because the money does not go through the government. Two bills that would have created true voucher programs with direct state payments to private schools were killed last week by House Speaker David Ralston. He was outraged by a national voucher advocacy group that bombarded conservative voters with political mailers likening Republicans to liberals if they didn’t support the measures.

Unlike true vouchers, the student scholarship program draws funds directly from taxpayers who get a credit off their state taxes equal to their contribution.

House Bill 517 passed both the House and Senate last year, raising the contribution caps for individuals and companies but not the total amount for the program. Last-minute changes in the Senate prevented final passage last March, but since it was the first year of a two-year session, the bill remained in play.

In a surprise move, the House called it up for a vote Thursday. It passed with an amendment increasing the current $100 million cap by $20 million a year until 2027, where it would stay through 2032 before falling back to the current level.

Ralston, in a statement Thursday, called the measure “ a further investment to provide students and their parents with greater school choice.”

State Rep. John Carson, R-Marietta, the primary author, said the Senate asked that the program drop back to $100 million in 2033. Senators wanted to monitor the program’s performance before making such an expansion permanent, he said.

Carson said the House approved expansion only after ensuring the Quality Basic Education formula for public schools was fully funded in this year’s budget.

“We did not move forward on this until we fully funded QBE and teacher raises,” he said. He noted that donors had given the maximum allowed every year to the scholarship program since its inception except in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public school advocates have long argued that vouchers — and these private school scholarships — harm public schools by draining away money that might otherwise go to them. It was a powerful argument during the long years of painful budget cuts following the Great Recession, but it may have been less convincing for lawmakers at a time when state coffers are overflowing.

The legislation now goes to the Senate for final approval.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.