Cobb leader: Voucher bill creates winners and losers. Can’t all kids win?

Vouchers are again under consideration in the General Assembly this sessions.  A Cobb school board member warns that vouchers will ultimately leave struggling schools with fewer resources. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Vouchers are again under consideration in the General Assembly this sessions. A Cobb school board member warns that vouchers will ultimately leave struggling schools with fewer resources. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Advocates for public education know what a voucher bill will accomplish: the use of public funds for private education. We also know what it won’t accomplish: success for all children.

Last year’s iteration of a voucher bill proposed $6,500 for students enrolled in “failing schools” or public schools that performed in the bottom quartile on state measurements. These vouchers are an unserious solution to a very real problem. We do have schools where students are struggling. But a $6,500 voucher will not help the majority of those students, and will not solve the structural problem of the school “failing” in the first place.

Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at how Georgia has funded education for the past two decades. The state enacted austerity cuts to its education budget beginning in 2003 and running through 2017. In Cobb County alone, that has translated to the loss of over $609 million in what the state’s own funding formula calculated it owed the Cobb County School District over the course of the past 20 years for a quality, basic education for its students.

In fiscal years 2012 and 2013, Cobb was forced to cut $72 million from the general fund budget in the middle of the school year. In those lean years, teachers were furloughed, teaching positions were eliminated, class sizes increased and the number of days students spent in school shrunk. The compounded effects of underfunding education are huge, impacting student performance, teacher retention and community trust in our public institutions. This is particularly visible in our most vulnerable populations — students living in poverty.

 Becky Sayler

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

In addition to historical underfunding, there are problems with our current funding formula, known as the Quality Basic Education Act adopted in 1985. The state of Georgia is one of only six states in the nation without a way to provide additional funding to children living in poverty within QBE despite the impact of poverty on student success being a well-documented fact.

With this decades-long lack of investment in our students, is it any surprise that we have struggling schools and struggling students?

Let’s take a closer look at who attends a “failing school” and if a $6,500 voucher would help them. In Cobb, one elementary school that has been designated as underperforming by the state has about 84% of its student body identified as living in poverty and a total population of about 880 students.

Most of those students also depend on school meals and school bus transportation. A nearby private school charges $25,400 annually in tuition for its lower school, which is comprised of about 280 students. Is it really the state of Georgia’s solution to the problem of an underperforming school that the students leave and attend private school, at an additional cost to each family of $18,900 year? How could local private schools absorb that many more students even if they accepted them?

The reality is that private schools can deny students their special education rights, deny admission based on academic or behavioral challenges and typically don’t provide transportation or meals. For example, private schools are not legally obligated to serve students with Individualized Education Plans to address their special needs due to speech impairment or physical disability or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among other designations. As a result, they will never be a solution for all kids.

Even in some magical world where students from an underperforming school who were accepted into a local private school could find the extra tuition through scholarships, could get transportation to and from school each day, and be successful even though they’ve given up their educational rights enshrined in law, that would at most be a success for a handful of children. Most students would remain behind at that underperforming public school, which now has even less funding since the student population has decreased.

In this way, voucher bills pick winners and losers. Don’t we want all of our students to win?

Imagine what could happen to transform our public schools if struggling schools were given $6,500 per student to address the interrupted learning from COVID-19, deficient prenatal and early childhood health care, the reading readiness gap between poor and middle-income students, and food insecurity? If we can’t do $6,500 per student, how about we just fully fund an updated QBE where students living in poverty are recognized and supported?

Georgia now has transformational legislation that requires dyslexia screening and remediation (in public schools). The new law requires screening and then remediation for children identified as having “characteristics of dyslexia.” This, however, will not afford the same academic rights as a child diagnosed with dyslexia who would then be eligible for an IEP under “specified learning disability” through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Some states with dyslexia legislation go further and require this step of diagnosis. As the law stands, there will be families who can pursue a diagnosis through private means and others who lack that access, resulting in less academic rights.

In his support of using public funds for private education, Gov. Brian Kemp said: “I believe — like many of you — that competition and the free market drive innovation and, at the end of the day, result in a better product for the consumer. When it comes to education, the same principles hold true.”

The problem with this statement is that it assumes that it is acceptable in education to have winners and losers. In Georgia, we should be doing all we can to make sure all students succeed. There are real barriers to student success, and the way we support and fund education should reflect solutions that will work for all kids.

Kemp’s proposed budget does have educational priorities worth celebrating, like literacy training and raises for teachers, increased funding for transportation, and expanded safety measures. Vouchers, however, will pick winners, and the losers will be the vast majority of Georgia’s public school students.

Becky Sayler is a preschool teacher and a member of the Cobb County School District Board of Education. This essay reflects her views and not those of the Cobb school board.

About the Author