K-12 “scholarship” legislation would pay Ga. parents for private school

New legislation in Georgia would create so-called scholarship accounts for parents who want to send their kids to private school

New legislation in Georgia would create so-called scholarship accounts for parents who want to send their kids to private school

A floor leader for Gov. Brian Kemp has signed onto legislation that would create a direct state payment for a limited number of Georgia students to attend private school and cover schooling expenses.

House Bill 301, introduced this week, would establish so-called "education scholarship accounts" giving parents state money, not unlike school "vouchers" in other states.

Eligible students include anyone enrolled in a Georgia public school the prior year, a requirement that wouldn’t apply to certain groups, such as low-income families, the learning disabled or victims of bullying. Recipients would be entitled to the state portion of the funding their local school district gets per student, which on average is 54 percent of the total when counting local and federal dollars.

Students with disabilities would be entitled to whatever their education program would have cost in the local school.

Recipient parents and guardians would have to sign an agreement promising to provide an education “in at least the subjects of reading, grammar, mathematics, social studies, and science” and to use the money only on qualified educational expenses, such as tuition, textbooks, tutoring, transportation and technological devices.

The lead sponsor is Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock. He has introduced such bills unsuccessfully in prior legislative sessions. This time, though, the second co-signer is someone with an influential ally: Rep. Jodi Lott, R-Evans, is a floor leader for Kemp, who campaigned for governor as a proponent of school choice.

Georgia already has a scholarship subsidy program for private schools, but in that one the funding path is less direct from the state. Capped at $100 million a year after the Legislature nearly doubled it last year, taxpayers "contribute" money to designated private schools through non-profit organizations and get their money back in a state tax credit.

RELATED | Tax credit scholarships for private schools to grow to $100 million

Some of the money goes to schools with a religious affiliation. A taxpayer lawsuit claiming this was unconstitutional failed to convince the Georgia Supreme Court, which issued a unanimous opinion in 2017 upholding the program. The court ruled the plaintiffs had no standing because the money from the tax credits was not public.

The current proposal would use state money though.

School choice advocates favor such measures because they give kids a way out of neighborhood schools that are not working for them and, they argue, they improve education overall.

“Competition can be a rising tide that lifts all boats,” the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote in December.

Critics contend that such programs peel away the easiest students to educate while draining away money from constrained public school budgets.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the largest teacher advocacy group in the state with nearly 100,000 members, has long opposed the tax credit program, likening them to vouchers despite the high court ruling. The association will likely go to war against HB 301, but Margaret Ciccarelli, the group’s legislative affairs director, opened with diplomatic language about the bill.

“We have concerns about it and will be working with policymakers,” she said.

The legislation caps participation at a half a percent of the state’s total enrollment, or fewer than 9,000 students. But that cap would rise over time.

Critics of voucher-type programs complain private schools aren’t always held to the same accountability standards as public schools, which are mandated to give standardized state tests.

HB 301 would require participating private schools to give scholarship students nationally norm-referenced tests to be selected by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, the agency that would oversee the program.