Opinion: Georgia Senate silences public as it pushes voucher expansion

A teacher group put anti-school-voucher props on every desk in the General Assembly in 2019. A voucher bill is back in the General Assembly this year and moving quickly through the state Senate. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

A teacher group put anti-school-voucher props on every desk in the General Assembly in 2019. A voucher bill is back in the General Assembly this year and moving quickly through the state Senate. (Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

I get the sense Georgia’s state senators put more thought into their daily lunch orders than their proposed massive expansion of school vouchers.

A fast-moving bill is making its way through the Senate even though it’s clear no one knows the ultimate cost of the proposal to vastly expand private school vouchers. The bill passed the Senate Monday and moves now to the House for consideration.

Despite requests to sponsors from education groups, the legislation lacks a fiscal note from the Office of Planning and Budget and the Department of Audits and Accounts that would show the impact of a large-scale voucher program on state revenues. The Senate is advancing the bill without any real public debate, either. This new generation of GOP leaders does not want to veer from a political agenda scripted by the extreme base of the party.

Senate Bill 233 would provide $6,000 a year to parents to be used for a variety of purposes, including private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, curriculum, doctors, therapists, transportation, fund management fees, computers and “other expenses.”

Under the bill, private school students who enter the program in the early grades could receive the $6,000 every year until they graduate from high school. In the absence of a fiscal note, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators estimates the additional cost to the state of providing scholarships could be as high as $180 million by the fifth year. However, a limiting amendment was added to the bill Monday restricting scholarship access to only those students zoned for a school performing in the bottom 25% on various state measures.

Georgia already has two limited voucher programs that are described as “scholarships” because the Legislature knows voters dislike vouchers. Before Georgia expands vouchers, it would seem wise to evaluate how students are faring in the two existing programs. Now, we have no idea — by design. Accountability is only for public schools in Georgia.

At the hearing before the voucher bill was hastily approved last week, Senate Education and Youth Committee Chair Clint Dixon allowed only a few speakers, most of whom endorsed the bill. The committee spent less than an hour on the bill. Dixon did the same thing the following day with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, shrugging off the roomful of teens who showed up to speak against it.

Dixon has adopted the posture of last year’s chair, Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, who, in 2022, refused to hear from any of the high school students who traveled from Savannah to address the divisive concepts bill. The Savannah teens signed up to speak, prepared their testimony and arrived six hours early.

The tactic of silencing the voices of Georgia’s youth comes from a committee that keeps stressing the need to put students first — unless those students want to question the surge in politically driven legislation. Then, lawmakers don’t want to hear a word from them.

These same legislators insist they support public education, attended by 9 out of 10 children in Georgia. However, their priorities this session prove otherwise. A former research and data analyst at the Department of Education and now education director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, Stephen Owens said he’s stunned that a Legislature that has long delayed updating the 40-year-old public school funding formula because they want to get it right is leaping into the largest voucher expansion in the state’s history with almost no public comment.

Lawmakers are considering diverting public funds to private schools when Georgia remains one of six states that does not offer any extra funding to public schools with large numbers of low-income kids, when teachers still earn less than peers in many other states, when aging school buses are held together by spit and prayers, and classroom paraprofessionals earn pennies, said Owens.

If you look at the highest-achieving states such as Massachusetts and Connecticut, they have done so by fully committing and funding the public school model.

Coweta County teens Cameron Hammett (foreground) and Hannah Lee talk to Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, about proposed voucher legislation at the General Assembly on Thursday, March 2, 2023. The students are part of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. (Courtesy of Georgia Youth Justice Coalition)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Cameron Hammett, a junior at East Coweta High School, went to the Legislature Thursday with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition to urge her state senator to reject vouchers. She didn’t get far. “He told me it would help low-income families,” said Hammett. With annual private school tuition in Georgia averaging $11,500, she told him $6,000 would be more likely to nudge middle-class families out of public schools, not low-income households.

“The outcome I see from this bill is our classrooms would have less funding and be less diverse,” said Hammett. “Instead of giving a voucher to that one child, how about bettering the whole school system so there’s not a reason for that child to leave?”