Republicans in the Georgia Senate passed legislation Monday that would expand private school vouchers to general public school students.
Senate Bill 233, which now goes to the state House, would give $6,000 a year in state funds to the parents of each child who opts for private schooling. The money could be used for tuition and many other education-related costs as long as those parents assume full responsibility for their child’s education. The $6,000 a year is about what the state pays for the average public school student, and proponents note that if those students move from a public to a private school, it won’t cost the state more money.
“This is a money-follows-the-child bill,” said Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming, the main sponsor, explaining that it “allows parents to decide the educational future of their children ... .”
Critics say the “Georgia Promise Scholarship Act,” which passed the Senate 33-23 in a party-line vote, would undermine public education by reducing the amount in state coffers that could be allotted to public schools.
They note that it would produce one new cost to the state: a subsidy for incoming kindergartners and first graders who never would have gone the public school route. (Kindergarten is not mandatory in Georgia.) SB 233 says children who are eligible to enroll in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten or first grade could participate as could students from second grade and up who attended public school during the prior six weeks.
Dolezal previously tried to address critics by adding a clause that says the vouchers would only be funded in years when public schools are given all they are supposed to get under the state’s education funding formula. On Monday, he also got the full Senate to add an amendment restricting the scholarships to students zoned for a school performing in the bottom 25% on various state measures.
Democrats estimated the legislation would divert more than $200 million a year from public schools though it’s unclear how Dolezal’s floor amendment might affect their calculation.
Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, a former teacher and Atlanta school board member, said the legislation would reduce public school funding while helping families that were going to choose private school anyway. He said most of the schools performing at the bottom likely have the highest rates of poverty.
“It does nothing to address the issues that we have with poverty,” Esteves said of SB 233. “In fact, it would make it worse.”
Proponents of vouchers argue that parents, including those in poverty, know what’s best for their children and should receive public funding if they want a private education. But critics contend there is no consistent way to know whether taxpayers are getting their money’s worth with vouchers.
At least 20 states already have a similar program. The research on academic outcomes of these programs has been mixed, with proponents touting studies that show gains and critics pointing to losses.
In many cases, the tests used to assess their performance are not the same as what’s used to assess public schools, making comparisons difficult. For instance, while SB 233 does require participating private schools to ensure their state-subsidized students take a “nationally norm-referenced test,” it wouldn’t be the Milestones tests given in all public schools. The Milestones are based on state educational standards that do not apply to private schools.
SB 233 differs from traditional vouchers in that it would fund more than private school tuition.
The money would flow to parents through “scholarship accounts” that they could also use to pay for textbooks, tutoring, curriculum, doctors, therapists, transportation, fund management fees, computers and “other expenses.”
Georgia also has a scholarship program that subsidizes private school tuition using taxpayer contributions. Although contributing taxpayers get all of their money back in the form of a state tax credit, the Georgia Supreme Court has determined that the program does not use state funding, so technically it is not a voucher.
The one program that does use state funding is the Special Needs Scholarship program. It was originally for students identified for an “Individualized Education Program” under federal law, but the Legislature expanded it in 2021 to include students with accommodations approved under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act.
About the Author