Private school vouchers back on the state legislative agenda

Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, center, in an AJC file photo. Cantrell is proposing a version of a voucher bill this year based on schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, center, in an AJC file photo. Cantrell is proposing a version of a voucher bill this year based on schooling during the coronavirus pandemic. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Pandemic precautions have set the stage for an unusual legislative session, but one thing hasn’t changed: the years-long feud over public funding of private education in Georgia.

For several years, some lawmakers have pushed to spend more state money on private educational expenses, including tuition, and this year Rep. Wes Cantrell is back with his proposal to give certain parents access to more state tax dollars.

Various versions of the proposal have been shot down in years past, including one by Cantrell that was rejected by a large bipartisan majority in the state House of Representatives in 2018.

This time, Cantrell, R-Woodstock, has updated his proposal for a pandemic year by expanding eligibility to students in school districts that are not offering in-person schooling.

“We’ve seen with the pandemic that a lot of kids aren’t doing well with the virtual option,” Cantrell said.

House Bill 60 would put state money into “scholarship accounts” controlled by a limited group of parents who withdraw their children from public school and educate them privately.

Groups representing both teachers and school boards oppose the bill, likening it to a “voucher” — a lightning rod in the politics of education for decades.

Vouchers have traditionally used state money to subsidize private school tuition, but a new breed of legislation has expanded their use in other states. Public schools oppose them because the money comes out of their budgets.

HB 60 would allow parents to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition or other educational expenses, such as tutoring, therapy, transportation, books, curriculum and technology.

Public schools get roughly half their money from local taxes and the other half from the state, with a tiny portion coming from the federal government. HB 60 would give a district’s state portion to each qualifying student who withdraws from public school.

That is why groups such as the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a left-leaning budget watchdog, oppose the measure.

It diverts public money to private schools that are not held to the same standards of public accountability, the group notes, and comes after years of state budget cuts for education. “This loss would come at the absolute worst time for public schools,” the organization said.

The conservative Georgia Center for Opportunity, meanwhile, supports the legislation, saying it ensures “equal access to quality education options,” regardless of factors such as race or socioeconomic status.

Cantrell represents part of Cherokee County, where the school district opposes vouchers and similar measures. The local school board’s legislative priorities include this item: “Oppose the continuation and/or expansion of existing programs that directly or indirectly use public funds to pay private school tuition for students or provide tax incentives for their parents ... .”

Cantrell counters that public schools cannot satisfy every student’s needs, so parents deserve options to “customize” educational services. He notes that his legislation targets a limited number of students — the poor, the disabled, the adopted, the bullied and those in military families, though it also includes those in a school that is exclusively online due to COVID-19. It caps participation at half a percent of students statewide, expanding by that amount annually to a maximum of 5%.

Other new education legislation proposed so far includes Senate Bill 3, raising the mandatory education age by a year to 17; House Bill 23, regarding annexation disputes that involve schools; and House Bill 32, establishing a tax credit for teachers who agree to teach in certain rural or low-performing schools.

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