Proposed bill: Give vouchers to students whose schools didn’t offer 100% in-person classes

The Georgia House is considering a bill that would give vouchers to students who “spent the previous school year enrolled in a public school which is part of a local school system not offering an option for students to receive 100 percent of instruction in person for at least one semester."  (Sergio Flores/The New York Times).
The Georgia House is considering a bill that would give vouchers to students who “spent the previous school year enrolled in a public school which is part of a local school system not offering an option for students to receive 100 percent of instruction in person for at least one semester." (Sergio Flores/The New York Times).

Credit: Ser

Credit: Ser

House Education Committee will discuss House Bill 60 today at 1 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic placed unprecedented demands on Georgia’s public schools, from turning them into the state’s largest meal delivery service to forcing educators to teach children in classrooms and online at the same time, not unlike walking a tightrope while juggling three flaming torches.

In view of all schools have faced in the last year, you might assume the General Assembly would want to offer them a leg up rather than a kick in the gut. Yet, legislators are lacing up their boots to deliver new blows to education funding.

Under the guise of helping kids, three bills seek to expand vouchers. While the bills hide behind the new favored euphemism “education scholarships,” each diverts tax dollars from public schools to private ones.

“We are reeling from a decade or so of harsh budget cuts, yet rather than support the entire public education system of 1.7 million students, the Legislature is allowing a continual trickle of tax dollars to private schools,” said Stephen Owens, an analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. “It is hard to see the amount of funding going to private schools in Georgia without any expectation of accountability, while public schools continue to be underfunded.”

Scheduled to be discussed today in a 1 p.m. House Education Committee meeting, House Bill 60 would create a new private school voucher program, the “Georgia Educational Scholarships” Act. Under the bill, about $422 million in tax dollars could be diverted from public schools into personal voucher accounts.

Among the students eligible under HB 60 for a voucher: those in school districts that did not provide “100%” face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The language in the bill listing says vouchers should be given to students who:

Spent the previous school year enrolled in a public school which is part of a local 1school system not offering an option for students to receive 100 percent of instruction in person for at least one semester.

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Yet, HB 60 does not prohibit students from taking their voucher to private schools that didn’t provide 100% in-person instruction during the pandemic.

House Bill 142 would increase a private school scholarship fund underwritten by tax credits. Fully implemented, HB 60, HB 142 and SB 47 would cost the state $546 million annually, said Owens, who is a former research and data analyst at the Georgia Department of Education.

Presented last week to a Senate education meeting, Senate Bill 47 would broaden Georgia’s Special Needs Scholarship, a voucher program enacted in 2007 for children with documented disabilities who require special education services. The legislation would extend vouchers to children who can learn in a regular classroom with accommodations, such as note-taking aids, extended time on tests and assignments, and behavioral supports.

SB 47 broadens special needs vouchers to the 58,000 public school students under what are known as 504 plans requiring, if necessary, some classroom accommodation. But the legislation goes even further, providing vouchers to students without a 504 plan if their parents produce a justifying diagnosis from a physician or psychologist.

“You are being asked to potentially double the special needs voucher program for students who do not need specialized instruction and who will then go to schools where they will not have the same protections as they do in public schools. It just does not make sense. It’s also not a great use of money,” said Gretchen Walton, compliance and legislative affairs officer at the Cobb County School District.

To determine whether the voucher is well spent, SB 47 only calls for “an annual survey of participating parents’ satisfaction with the program, their satisfaction with the private school, and their likelihood of recommending the program.”

“How does a parent survey show that voucher money is actually being used for children? There is no accountability in this bill for the use of funds. There is no tracking of student progress,” said Walton. “There needs to be a true accounting of the return on investment of these funds, just like public schools have accountability through the College and Career Ready Performance Index and Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.”

Not only is there no tracking of student performance in the voucher bills, but taxpayers can’t see the financials of the private schools receiving their tax dollars, said Robert Costley of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders, adding, “How can we send hundreds of millions of tax dollars to private schools and not check on the kids? We don’t get to see their audit findings or their test scores.”

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