OPINION: Why are Georgia lawmakers vouching for vouchers?

The Georgia Legislature is considering three voucher bills this year. House Bill 60, which passed the House Education Committee Thursday in a 12-10 vote, would plunk millions into “personalized” education savings accounts for certain Georgians.
The Georgia Legislature is considering three voucher bills this year. House Bill 60, which passed the House Education Committee Thursday in a 12-10 vote, would plunk millions into “personalized” education savings accounts for certain Georgians.

Credit: Special to the AJC

Credit: Special to the AJC

Three voucher bills are on agenda as public schools reel from pandemic

In making his case for a broad new voucher program in Georgia, state Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, cited his days as a classroom teacher where he always had “one, two or three students who should not have been in that classroom due to the special needs they had. Many of those students became a distraction in the class and slowed down the progress of the other 25 or 27 students in my classroom.”

It’s hard to understand how Cantrell could look at that situation and conclude taxpayer-funded vouchers are the solution rather than lowering class sizes in public schools so all students receive more attention or hiring additional counselors to identify students who need extra help, especially amid reports of a student mental health crisis as a result of the pandemic. A study released in November by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found child visits to emergency rooms for mental health issues including anxiety rose 24% for young children and 31% for teens during the pandemic, compared to the prior year.

Georgia is not even funding one school counselor for every 450 students, never mind the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of one for every 250 students. Providing mental health and academic supports for students to the level needed in Georgia isn’t likely any time soon, especially with the increasing diversion of public school dollars to private schools through vouchers and tax credits over the past decade.

“Georgia has only met its minimal funding obligation to public schools twice in the last 19 years, yet our funding for private schools continues to go up every single year,” said Stephen Owens, an analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

Co-founder of King’s Academy, a private Christian school in Woodstock that combines classroom instruction and home schooling, Cantrell contends education outcomes could improve if we send public dollars to private schools with no real transparent accountability to taxpayers. Because, said Cantrell, “The ultimate accountability is still parental satisfaction.”

No offense to parents. I am one. But given the price tag, taxpayers deserve more accountability in a voucher program than a happy parent.

Unlike the bureaucratic and testing burdens the Legislature imposes on public schools, and to which it adds each year with new laws, similar demands are not made of private schools that get tax-subsidized voucher money. Yet, at a hearing Thursday where the House Education Committee endorsed the bill in a 12-10 vote, Cantrell said his House Bill 60, when fully implemented in 10 years, will cost Georgia taxpayers about $250 million a year. Cantrell promoted his bill Monday to the House Rules Committee.

One of three voucher bills this session, HB 60 would plunk that quarter of a billion dollars into “personalized” education savings accounts for certain Georgians, including families of four earning $53,000 a year or less, active-duty military service members stationed in Georgia within the previous year, or someone who adopted a child out of foster care.

Voucher recipients would also include students enrolled in school districts that did not provide “100%” face-to-face instruction for a semester during the previous school year. Yet, Cantrell allows families in his bill to use vouchers to pay for online instruction.

Also entitled to vouchers would be students who have an Individualized Education Plan under federal special education law or a 504 plan for students served in regular classrooms but requiring accommodations such as more time for tests or note-taking assistance. (These same students are the focus of another voucher bill this session, Senate Bill 47, which passed out of committee last week.)

On average, public schools depend on the state for about half their funding. HB 60 would give a district’s state portion to each qualifying student who withdraws from public school.

The bill allows parents wide latitude in how they spend those tax dollars: The money can go for private school tuition and fees, tutoring services, a home-schooling curriculum and supplemental materials, tuition and fees for a nonpublic online learning program, services from a physician or licensed therapist including occupational, behavioral, physical or speech-language, fees for the management of account funds, computer or other technological devices for students’ educational needs, and transportation to a private school or service provider.

And if the legitimacy of a receipt submitted by a parent is questioned, guess who decides whether the expense is legitimate? Eight parents whose children are also receiving the voucher.

(Why bother having an impartial state employee determine if tax dollars are being spent wisely when we can ask the people getting the vouchers to decide? This could be a trend. Maybe, disputes over parking fines should be settled by other drivers who got tickets rather than a municipal judge.)

Cantrell argued at a recent hearing most parents will keep their children in public schools. But schools will be impacted, especially rural schools because of the fixed costs they face.

“Schools can’t turn down the heat by two kids or cut off 2 feet of a school bus,” said Owens, a former research and data analyst at the Georgia Department of Education. “Schools end up operating at a loss whenever these students leave.”

The research on voucher programs has not produced persuasive evidence of increased achievement. Georgia lawmakers used to cite the Louisiana voucher program until a 2019 study found math scores were significantly lower for the Louisiana students placed in private schools through a lottery than a control group of kids who wanted to participate but lost the lottery. The control group students remaining in public schools ended up with substantially higher math performance even after four years. A study of a voucher program in Washington, D.C., found similar results.

Cantrell points instead to Arizona as a model to emulate, which was surprising because the Arizona program has suffered fraud. In a single year, an audit identified upward of $700,000 in misspending, including parents buying allowed educational materials only to return them to pocket the money. Arizona’s auditor general concluded almost none of ill-spent educational savings account funds was ever recovered by the state, which lacked the resources to investigate.

Arizona voters rejected an expansion of vouchers in 2018 by a 65% to 35% margin. Yet, the state Senate there is trying this year to expand the program for much the same reason the Georgia General Assembly is considering three voucher bills: The Republican leadership does not believe that public education is a public good any longer, even while more than 9 out of 10 Georgia children attend a public school. Vouchers don’t represent reform; they stand as a renunciation of the foundational American belief that the education of our children is our collective obligation.

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