AJC poll finds support for school choice, vouchers

Georgia voters appear ready to embrace more charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools, and many favor choice even if it means sending tax dollars to private or religious institutions, a new poll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.

With the election of Donald Trump, the diversification of America’s educational system is on the national agenda. Betsy DeVos, his pick for education secretary, is an advocate for charter schools and for subsidizing private school tuition with public dollars using so-called vouchers.

The poll found strong support for expansion of what people in education circles call "school choice," with 61 percent of the polled registered voters saying they favor more of it, despite assertions it could undercut public school funding. Among those supporting more choice, there was even stronger support for vouchers, which have been a lightening rod for controversy in education policy. School vouchers can be redeemed at private schools to subsidize tuition.

Opponents say alternatives to public schools peel away the best students and the most engaged parents while siphoning away public support and funding from traditional schools, undermining them. Proponents say public schools have stagnated and are failing the children who are stuck in them, leaving them with few alternatives and a bleak future. They accuse teachers and school administrators of having a vested interest since their jobs could be on the line if parents can choose something other than a neighborhood school.

Gov. Nathan Deal used many of the same arguments last year in arguing for his proposed Opportunity School District. It was designed to convert under-performing traditional schools into charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed.

Voters soundly rejected that idea but the defeat apparently did not mean they had soured on school choice. The poll reveals among choice supporters there is an ardent core, 69 percent, who said their support would not waiver even if it meant vouchers for private or religious schools.

Mark James, 49, a Republican who installs heating and air systems and lives in Cherokee County, told the pollsters he fully supports school choice and vouchers. He said in a subsequent interview that he sent his own, now grown, children through the Cherokee public schools, which he said were fine. But he appears to feel empathy for students in under-performing schools in urban areas such as Fulton and DeKalb counties.

“You hear about them on the news,” he said, adding he thinks nothing will change if it’s left up to teachers and principals. “Somebody needs to step in and help them,” he said. “Maybe that would calm down the crime rate down there if people started getting an education.”

It's been more than two decades since Georgia's first charter school law was adopted. Now there are more than 100 of the schools. A growing number are under the authority of the state, as opposed to the local school systems, which used to have exclusive chartering authority. Four years ago, voters overwhelmingly supported a constitutional amendment that also gave the state that authority. The State Charter Schools Commission grew from that referendum, and last year it listed more than two dozen charter schools under its authority.

Georgia also has dipped its toe in the voucher pool, allowing limited funding of private schools with public money since the 2008 adoption of the Qualified Education Expense Credit law. Taxpayers pledge money to specific private schools, including many with religious affiliations, and get a state tax credit for the same amount. The tax credits allotted yearly has grown to $58 million. It's been capped by lawmakers for several years at that amount because of the controversy about the idea. The legal authority behind the program is unsettled, with a legal hearing pending before the Georgia Supreme Court later this month over allegations that it's unconstitutional to use tax dollars to fund religious institutions.

Since his defeat on the Opportunity School District, Deal has vowed to make failing schools the focus of the legislative session that began Monday. He has not revealed the details of his plans, but school choice and vouchers are said to be components. State Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, is developing the proposal and has said he is not yet ready to discuss it. The AJC has reported meanwhile that several people briefed on a House education measure for failing schools said it would involve a six-year process culminating in an exit route for students: if performance doesn't improve, the students could be offered vouchers or state help in switching schools.

It appears there would be some resistance to a voucher plan, though. Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, the chairman of the state Senate committee that oversees educational legislation, is skeptical, saying they amount to a Band-Aid solution.

“I really don’t think that that’s a solution except for those individuals who have the wherewithal to take advantage of the vouchers,” he said. Kids without advocates or basic support, like someone with a car who can drive them across town, will be left behind, he said. “It’s much more critical in my mind to go to the root causes of why schools are failing. It’s going to be harder work.”

About the poll

This Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll surveyed 919 registered voters statewide from Jan. 2 to Jan. 5. The margin of error for each response is plus or minus 4 percentage points. The survey, conducted by Abt SRBI, used both land-line and cellphones. The data are weighted based on mode (cell-only, land-line-only and mixed), region (metro vs. nonmetro), gender, age, race, education and ethnicity (Hispanic vs. non-Hispanic). Some totals may not equal 100 percent due to rounding.

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