How Georgia’s school voucher expansion went down in defeat

State Sen. Shelly Echols was in a foul mood on the final day of the legislative session last week. The freshman Republican had spent hours cultivating support for her top legislative priority when the rug was pulled out from under her.

“Hijacked,” she told WDUN’s Martha Zoller of her measure to make it easier for Georgians with diabetes to receive glucose monitors. “I found out my bill had been sacrificed to buy a few voters over in the House for another bill.”

Why was her health care measure figuratively strangled at the legislative altar? It was a victim of the crossfire of an all-out fight to pass what would have been a significant expansion of private school vouchers.

Simply put, she said, her bill was opposed by unnamed House Republicans who wanted it killed in exchange for their support for vouchers. And GOP leaders were willing to make that trade for what could be a consequential shake-up of public education.

Senate Bill 233 would have tapped taxpayer dollars to finance a $6,500 per student voucher to pay for private school tuition and home-school expenses, part of a new wave of flexible “education savings accounts” adopted in about a dozen other states.

In the final hours of the legislative session, the political winds were shifting in its favor.

Gov. Brian Kemp pressed for it in public and behind closed doors. So did Lt. Gov. Burt Jones and House Speaker Jon Burns. Legislative leaders made last-minute changes to win over holdouts. The Wall Street Journal editorial board weighed in with support.

Georgia's top leaders at the Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp, center, Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, left, and House Speaker Jon Burns all backed a bill that would have used taxpayer dollars to finance a $6,500 per student voucher to pay for private school tuition and home-school expenses. The bill failed, though, when 16 Republicans, mostly from rural districts, joined Democrats in voting against it. (Arvin Temkar/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

And yet the measure suffered defeat in the final hours of the session, halted by a rebellion from 16 House Republicans. So unexpected was the outcome that Democrats broke decorum and cheered its failure from the chamber’s floor.

The debate is far from over. The House quickly voted to reconsider the measure, making it likely to resurface next year when legislators reconvene for the latter half of a two-year term.

But its collapse exposed the limits of even the most powerful leaders in Georgia — and the political perils facing those who seek to overhaul long-standing educational policy.

‘Who are we?’

The fight over state vouchers has been waged for more than a decade under the Gold Dome, and “school choice” advocates won piecemeal victories.

The state approved private school vouchers for some special education students, and lawmakers created a student scholarship tax credit program that helps pay private school tuition for some.

But broader expansions have been stymied by opponents, including many local school boards, who say vouchers would undercut public education, foster discriminatory policies and benefit affluent families who were already paying for private school education.

Supporters also have made baffling errors. Last year, the American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group, bombarded conservative voters with glossy mailers tying Republican state legislators in 16 GOP-controlled districts to “radical left” figures.

Then-House Speaker David Ralston declared a school voucher deal dead last year after a group that favored them, the American Federation for Children, sent glossy mailers to conservative voters with glossy mailers that tied Republican state legislators in 16 GOP-controlled districts to “radical left” figures. Ralston, a Republican from Blue Ridge, called the move “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my career and one of the most deceitful.”


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Credit: Jason Getz

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Credit: Jason Getz

House Republicans were furious. Then-House Speaker David Ralston declared the legislation dead, saying it was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my career and one of the most deceitful.”

This year brought a revived effort tailored to only apply to the lowest-achieving 25% of public schools — and new leaders committed to its passage.

Jones campaigned on a promise for more “school choice,” while Burns told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he endorsed the measure.

House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, that chamber’s No. 2 Republican, framed it as a lifeline that could help rescue students in the state’s worst-performing schools.

“An education can change a life,” she told her colleagues. “Who are we not to give some students another option?”

‘A marathon’

After the Senate passed a version of the measure along party lines, the pressure shifted to the House — and to Kemp.

The governor’s behind-the-scenes approach with the Legislature came into question as the voucher bill stalled in the House. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board mused after one setback that the bill could “pass if the governor spends some political capital to get it done.”

Two days before the final vote, Kemp went public with his support for the bill. He followed up with a personal push at a private luncheon with House Republicans. One legislator summed up his message thusly: “If not now, then when?”

After The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote that a school voucher bill could “pass if the governor spends some political capital to get it done,” Gov. Brian Kemp went public with his support for the measure. The bill was defeated. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

As the final legislative deadline loomed, the horse-trading only ramped up as supporters monitored a shifting vote count.

One House Democrat was told a long-stalled priority would suddenly pass in exchange for a “yes” vote on vouchers. Republicans were abuzz that Betsy DeVos, the education secretary during the Trump administration, was poised to twist arms.

Many Democrats figured Burns would call the measure for a vote the moment it had enough support to pass. So when the House speaker agreed to bring it for debate, opponents of the measure girded for the inevitable.

Instead, after emotional back-and-forth, the vote tally lit up with columns of red “no” votes from 16 GOP lawmakers, mostly representing safe Republican districts in exurban and rural areas.

Among them was state Rep. Vance Smith, a former Georgia transportation commissioner who said the measure wasn’t a holistic approach to education challenges.

“It’s going to leave students in failing schools. I’d rather help them all. Let’s look at the whole system,” he said. “If we aren’t doing the right job in the school system, we need to look at the whole process.”

State Rep. Tyler Paul Smith, R-Bremen, also joined the GOP objectors. Smith, the chair of an influential legal committee, said the threats of conservative backlash were exaggerated and the “feedback following the vote from my district has been overwhelmingly positive.”

One factor may have been who would benefit from vouchers. Critics pointed to the fact that many counties don’t have private schools, particularly in rural Georgia, where Republicans dominate politically.

The GOP defections helped the measure fall six votes shy of passage. The only Democrat to back the measure, state Rep. Mesha Mainor, watched as many in her caucus celebrated on the floor.

State Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, the lone Democrat to support a school voucher bill that failed, now faces the possibility of a primary challenge in the next eletion. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

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Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“Can a Georgia Democrat agenda be fulfilled if we refuse to work with the other party?” said Mainor, now facing threats of a primary challenge.

State Rep. Ruwa Romman, one of the Democrats who jumped for joy at its defeat, put it differently: “People put their districts before politics.”

When Kemp addressed House lawmakers minutes later, in what could have been a victory lap, he wound up avoiding any mention of the voucher measure.

Burns, meanwhile, was frank when asked why he brought the bill for a vote if it was doomed to fail.

“I didn’t know it was,” he said.

Echols, the GOP senator, learned a hard-fought lesson of her own. While she supported the voucher overhaul, Echols also struggled to comprehend how her diabetes measure became a casualty of the infighting.

“It’s frustrating. They say it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s a two-year process,” she said. “My bill is now in a two-year process.”

State Sen. Shelly Echols says her bill to make it easier for Georgians with diabetes to obtain glucose monitors was “hijacked” to win votes for a school voucher bill that eventually failed. That measure will likely return when the General Assembly convenes again in January, and Echols expressed a desire to bring back her bill, too.  (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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