Opinion: Voucher bill would let fly-by-night schools get tax dollars



The Georgia General Assembly appears poised to pass a sweeping bill that would give parents vouchers of $6,500 a year that can be used for private school tuition if their children are in low-performing schools as indicated by state assessments. In a guest column, Robert Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, explains why Senate Bill 233 is a bad idea.

Costley is a U.S. Navy veteran, who served overseas in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier. In his long educational career, he has served as an English teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent and as a Georgia school superintendent for 11 years.

By Robert Costley

For any voter who participated in Georgia’s 2022 Republican primary, this poll question will be familiar to you:

Education is the largest line item in the state budget. Should education dollars follow the student to the school that best fits their need, whether it is public, private, magnet, charter, virtual or homeschool?”

It turns out 79% of Georgians voting on the Republican side answered “Yes” to this question. And it’s no surprise.

When any political party wants a certain answer to a question for political agendas, they have a way of writing poll questions that are designed to get the answers that are helpful to their cause. It doesn’t matter which party. They all do it.

Case in point, many legislators and school choice pundits are quoting the above poll number in hearings recently at the Gold Dome and on their social media feeds in support of Senate Bill 233, which is yet another private school tax voucher bill being debated in the Georgia House of Representatives in the last week of the session.

With the above poll data, it’s clear that party leaders have a statewide mandate for passing legislation for private school vouchers, right?

Maybe not. The political devil is in the details. Or rather, the missing details.

You might think if you voted “Yes” that you are helping children.

Well, I ask you to think for yourself (not what I or your elected officials are telling you) and see if some information was missing from the poll question last spring. More importantly, I implore you to read SB 233 word for word and see if I am telling you something inaccurate. Think for yourself and don’t just listen to what the authors of the bill (or me) are telling you.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

To help you, I propose for your consideration a new poll question as a follow-up question for data gathering. Ask yourself with full intellectual honesty what percentage of voters would have voted “Yes” to the poll question:

“Knowing that millions of tax dollars in the form of vouchers will go to private schools, should those private schools who receive public tax money be held to the same standard of accountability and transparency that public schools are held to in Georgia, including posting their annual audits and budgets and safety data to the public and including allowing taxpayers to testify at budget and board hearings?”

I find it hard to believe 80%-90% of Georgians would not have voted “Yes” to this question as well.

If you agree, the reason is simple: This kind of accountability and transparency with schooling children is what you expect out of Georgia legislators. But you aren’t getting it from SB 233, and you would never know it by listening to proponents of it unless you actually read the legislation.

Transparency and accountability are not just political terms; they protect boys and girls from bad things. And they protect taxpayers from political tinkering. And that’s why public schools have so much of both of these principles embedded in Georgia law.

And there’s the rub. People voting “Yes” on the poll in May of 2022 assumed that if the government were going to give away millions of tax dollars to private schools who educate our most important resource, our minor children in K-12, that surely the government would hold those schools accountable to the same level as public schools.

The truth is, there are amazing private schools in Georgia, but common sense also dictates that there exist some absolutely terrible ones as well, run by dysfunctional boards without financial training who are mismanaging funds … and unfortunately, mismanaging children.

And how will you know about these failing private schools that are receiving your tax money and serving our little boys and girls? You won’t. At least you won’t if SB 233 passes the House of Representatives Wednesday on the final day of the 2023 session known as Sine Die.

Think about what you know about public schools in the state, as required by law:

You know the identity of the bottom quartile of public schools in terms of academic data.

You can look up public schools’ academic, safety and discipline data on the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement website and study their climate and culture.

You can go to any public school system website and find its annual operating budget.

You can find a public school system’s annual financial audit and ask questions about it. Or hold their board and staff accountable for fraud, waste, and abuse of tax funds.

You can speak at the public school board meetings and budget meetings.

You can vote public school board members in … or out.

Try applying any of that for the many private schools in Georgia who accept your tax money from current voucher programs already in place, much less what is proposed in SB 233.

You have never heard a bad thing about private schools because they aren’t subject to the same reporting requirements around discipline and school climate that public schools are. They just take our tax money, and our children, and you never hear from them again until it is time for more money. The stories of the children who are rejected or poorly served by private schools are never ... ever ... told.

In the end, I am writing to the good and honest people who sincerely believe in school choice, the 79% who voted “Yes” to the poll … the ones who trusted that your government writing the poll question would ensure that your tax dollars would not go to fly-by-night private schools only in the process of seeking accreditation, which could mean simply the school has sent off a letter to an accreditation agency.

Like many of you reading this and thinking critically for yourselves and not believing me, the pundits, or even your elected officials without checking it out, I would say that most of the state representatives in Georgia’s House who have heard the debate last week have not fully read the proposed legislation, but the more they do, the more they realize what is missing from it:

Protections for children, protections for taxpayers.

In other words, the bill is awful governance, even if you support school choice.

In closing, I have heard several legislators in the majority party saying this week, true to their professed conservative roots of transparency and accountability: “Wait a minute! I am in support of school choice, but not in favor of giving away the state’s tax money to private people and private schools while not providing the public a way to see what happened to the money or to the kids to the same level they can in public schools!”

And I am betting most of the 79% who voted “Yes” for that incomplete poll survey question in 2022 feel the same exact way.