Kemp signs legislation establishing another school voucher program in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp hands off a pen after signing Senate Bill 233, known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, at Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp hands off a pen after signing Senate Bill 233, known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, at Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Gov. Brian Kemp on Tuesday signed legislation that will establish a new publicly funded private education subsidy for Georgia’s K-12 students.

Commonly referred to as vouchers, this will be the first such program in recent history that is open to all students, though only in lower-performing schools. Parents will get $6,500 a year if they pull their child out of one and assume full responsibility for educating their child, whether at a private school or at home.

Republicans in Georgia have been trying for years to establish a general voucher program, and after numerous close votes, finally got a bill through both legislative chambers in March.

Kemp signed Senate Bill 233 at a ceremony at Liberty Plaza next to the Gold Dome. “This legislation has always been about one thing: providing every Georgia child the opportunity to get the education that they deserve,” he said, adding that it “breaks down barriers and opens doors” for students.

It establishes “promise scholarship accounts” controlled by parents, who can spend the money on private school tuition or on costs associated with homeschooling, such as books, tutors or online classes. They can also use it to pay for doctors, transportation, account fund managers and other costs less directly associated with schooling.

It’s modeled on laws in other states, such as Florida’s, where allowable expenses included theme park passes, televisions and paddleboards. Those items are not on Georgia’s list, but parents could spend money on expenses not foreseen in SB 233 as long as they are approved by a state oversight committee that will be created.

Students and supporters wait for Gov. Brian Kemp to arrive to sign Senate Bill 233, known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, at Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Natrice Miller/AJC)

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Kemp had advocated for the measure last year, before it stalled in the House when 16 Republicans crossed the aisle and voted with Democrats against it. Kemp then pushed it to the front of his agenda early this year, announcing during his State of the State address in January that he was growing impatient. About half of the Republicans who’d defected last year would join their party in support of the measure this time, after the bill saw major amendments.

Funding will be capped at 1% of what the state’s funding formula says public schools are due each year. Lawmakers estimate it at $140 million annually at first, enough for 21,000 children. It will end in the summer of 2035 unless lawmakers renew it. It puts families earning less than 400% of the federal poverty level, or about $120,000 for a family of four, first in line. And it allows rising kindergartners to sidestep a core requirement for the subsidy: that students spend at least two semesters in a public school that is in the bottom quartile on state measures.

Private schools will have to test their voucher students, though not necessarily with the same Milestones exams taken in public schools. Such flexibility in testing, along with restrictions on public reporting of the scores, has led to accusations that these vouchers lack accountability.

Democrats and other critics, including teacher groups, assert it’s a subsidy for the rich that will impoverish public schools. And they say kids who fail in private schools will wind up back in public schools, further burdening taxpayers.

“The amount of the voucher, $6,500, is not nearly enough to pay for most private schools, for which tuition may be as high as $50,000,” Lisa Morgan, a kindergarten teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said in a statement Tuesday. “Vouchers are not a lifeline for working families, they are a handout to upper-class parents paid for by the working class.”

SB 233 establishes a second, or third, voucher program in Georgia — depending upon how one defines the term.

The first was established in 2007 for children with special needs. Another, established in 2008, uses tax-credited contributions from taxpayers rather than direct state funding.

Both have expanded. The special needs voucher is now accessible to children who have not been formally identified with a learning disability, after lawmakers in 2021 added students with a diagnosis for a variety of conditions — from autism and cancer to drug or alcohol abuse. The $120 million-a-year tax credit is now at more than twice the initial annual cap after several legislative increases.

Kemp also signed a half-dozen other school-related bills on Tuesday, including House Bill 409 quadrupling to $1,000 the fine for passing a stopped school bus (with up to a year in jail); Senate Bill 351 helping schools teach about the risks of social media, with $2,500 fines for platforms that don’t employ “commercially reasonable” efforts to verify users are at least 16 and $10,000 fines for porn sites that don’t confirm users are adults, and Senate Bill 395 requiring schools and government buildings to stock opioid inhibitors like Narcan and holding teachers harmless for possessing and administering them.