Legislative session brings renewed push for alternatives to traditional public schools

Tuesday’s snowstorm snuffed out the school choice rally that was scheduled at the State Capitol. But the desire many have for alternatives to traditional public school, which some school choice advocates argue aren’t doing a good enough job for students in this state, has not dimmed.

Legislation introduced in the General Assembly would expand access to private schools and to charter schools, much to the delight of choice advocates. Others see that expanded access as a distraction from where the focus should be — on traditional public schools, where the vast majority of Georgia students are educated — and have vowed to fight.

Forces outside Georgia are watching and weighing in on the debate.

“We clearly see in Georgia there is a strong demand from parents for options in education,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president for programs and state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, an Indianapolis-based group that pushes for more school choice.

Indeed, that demand can be seen in how quickly Georgians gobbled up the $58 million in state tax credits available through a private school tuition program.

The $58 million annual pool of tax credits, available to parents who switch their children from a public school to a private one, were snapped up in three weeks this year, the fastest the credits were claimed in the program’s seven-year history.

State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, whose legislation created the program in 2008, wants the pool of tax credits expanded to $100 million.

The program allows donors to student scholarship organizations to claim a state tax credit of up to $2,500 for married couples. Corporate donors can claim a credit worth up to 75 percent of their income tax liability.

Student scholarship organizations (SSOs) give the money they raise to private schools, which in turn distribute the money to students via scholarships.

The program has its critics, many of whom see the tax credits as a form of voucher, a state benefit to parents who send their child to private school. Critics also argue that the tax credits deprive the state of money that could be spent on public schools.

“When representatives provide vouchers for private schools, public schools suffer and the greater good suffers,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.

It used to be that parents could enroll their child in a public school, then “transfer” the child to a private school after the child attended public school as briefly as a single day.

That “enroll for a day” practice was ended by changes passed into law last year.

The Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that pushes for education improvements in Georgia, still remains a fierce critic of the program.

Some legislators who supported creating the program did so with the impression that they were making it easier for poor students to afford the switch from public to private school. However, the program, does not require that private school scholarships be given to students based on family income.

“There is no evidence that the program is advancing the education of students, especially low-income students,” SEF vice president Steve Suitts said.

Officials with the Arete Scholars Fund, one of about three dozen SSOs that raise money for private school scholarships, said they back expansion of the program. But they want scholarships given to students based on need.

Arete officials said that wouldn’t mean only poor students could benefit; it would simply mean that the poorest students wanting to switch from public to private school would be helped first.

“We know there are those with a quarter-million salary getting a scholarship and we don’t think that’s necessary,” said Derek Monjure, Arete’s executive director. “We think you should help those in need first.”

It's not clear what will happen with Ehrhart's legislation to expand the program, House Bill 759. Last year, Ehrhart's effort to do that was unsuccessful.

State Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, has a couple other plans to expand school choice.

One of Lindsey’s ideas, which he has not yet formally introduced as legislation, would allow businesses or local government to become partners with a charter school. Such a partnership would allow a municipality to give an unused building to charter school organizers, Lindsey said.

Lindsey is also giving a renewed push to H.B. 123, which would allow parents and teachers to force a local school board to consider changing a traditional public school into a charter school. Only a few states have such "parent trigger" laws.

“This allows for the parents to have a greater voice in their children’s school,” Lindsey said.

Choice advocates see charter schools, public schools given operation and instructional flexibility in exchange for promises to pursue specific academic goals, as more responsive to parents and students. Others note that charter schools frequently don’t out-perform traditional public schools.

H.B. 123 was passed by the state House of Representatives last year but not by the Senate, where some of Lindsey’s fellow Republicans raised questions about whether it would pit teachers against administrators.

Lindsey said he would not predict the outcome of his renewed push for H.B. 123.

Just as it did last year, the Georgia Federation of Teachers will fight H.B. 123, said Turner, who argues that private charter school management firms would supplant parents and elected school board members in running a school.

“Teachers always support more voice for parents in schools,” she said. “The cruel irony of parent-trigger bills like this is that parents actually lose their say in how their schools are run, how their tax dollars are spent, and how their children are educated.”