Georgia voucher bill came close to passing but lacked enough GOP votes

Georgia lawmakers came closer than ever to establishing a new type of private school voucher program before this year’s legislative session came to an end.

The “Georgia Promise Scholarship Act” would have given $6,500 to the family of each public school student who switched to a private school or chose home schooling instead.

It’s a relatively new kind of voucher that has been implemented in more than 10 other states. Often called “education savings accounts,” these vouchers are more flexible than the traditional kind.

Those have been around for decades, and are a direct state subsidy to a private school toward the cost of a student’s tuition. These newer account-type vouchers allow parents to spend the state’s money on more than tuition.

Georgia’s Senate Bill 233 would have allowed parents to spend the money on textbooks, tutoring, curriculum, doctors, therapists, transportation, fund management fees, computers and “other expenses.” It would have been useful for home-schoolers.

Such measures have come in front of state lawmakers annually, but none have made it as far as SB 233. It passed the Senate in early March but stalled in the House, despite a last-minute push this week from Gov. Brian Kemp.

Only students in the lowest-achieving 25% of public schools, based mostly on Georgia Milestones test scores, would have been eligible.

Critics were quick to point out that private school tuition typically costs thousands of dollars more than the proposed $6,500-a-year subsidy. They said more affluent families would be the ones to benefit though it’s mostly the poor that attend underperforming schools.

It would be difficult for those families to cover the gap, said Rep. Stacey Evans, D-Atlanta, who posed a question to her fellow lawmakers before Wednesday evening’s vote: “Where are they going to make up the difference?”

Because the state would have withheld some funding from each school that lost students, the critics said the measure would have beggared public education by diverting the money to the private sector.

But proponents pointed out that such schools would keep their locally derived funding and with fewer students to educate, they would be left with more money per student, not less.

“It’s not a rejection of traditional public schools,” said House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton. She repeated a common refrain among advocates for school choice: “Not every child learns the same way.”

The vote against SB 233 was 89-85, with one Democrat in favor and at least a dozen Republicans opposed. Republicans quickly called for a vote to reconsider. It passed by a wide margin, meaning the measure might have come up again in the waning hours of this year’s legislative session.

It did not, but this is the first year in a two-year session, so the bill will be waiting when lawmakers return in January.