ATLANTA - Supporters of expanding school vouchers in Georgia are renewing their push to expand options, including a measure that could give $6,000 a year to almost anyone as long as their child attended public school for a short time.
The House Education Committee on Tuesday passed a revised version of House Bill 60, which passed the same panel last year, sending it back to the House for more debate. Meanwhile, a subcommittee passed House Bill 999, a broader version of the same bill that would provide $6,000 a year to any child who attended public school for as few as six weeks. The full committee must still vote on that measure.
It’s unclear whether a House majority would favor either proposal, especially after House Bill 60 never came to a floor vote last year. A crucial fraction of rural Republicans resist many school choice proposals, along with all but a few Democrats.
Georgia already has programs giving vouchers for special education students in private schools and giving state income tax credits for donors to private school scholarship funds. But Rep. Wes Cantrell, the Woodstock Republican sponsoring the two bills, said a new program is needed because the current programs only cover private schools. Both new proposals can subsidize homeschooling by paying for tutoring or online classes.
"At the end of the day, I trust the parents to make the best decision for their child," Cantrell said.
Democrats and school groups oppose the bills, saying they would divert public funds to private schools.
"Any dollar that would be spent on this voucher should instead be used to protect the underfunded public schools that the state has a constitutional responsibility to support," said Stephen Owens of the liberal-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Proponents say local schools would come out ahead because districts would keep local tax money they would otherwise spend on students who leave.
House Bill 60 would limit student to about 4,000 initially, rising to more than 40,000 over 10 years. It would limit the benefit to children in a family under 400% of the federal poverty level, which is more than $100,000 a year for a family of four. Also eligible would be children adopted from foster care, children of an active-duty military member, children with special educational needs, or children in a public school that didn’t offer in-person instruction for one whole semester.
At the beginning, that would represent roughly $23 million in state money, rising to $230 million.
There would be no caps on enrollment or income under House Bill 999.
Opponents said the subsidy wouldn’t be cut when state budgets are bad, even though public school funding hasn’t equaled what Georgia’s funding formula calls for over most of the past 15 years.
They also said $6,000 isn’t enough to pay private tuition in most of Georgia, meaning it would act as subsidy for more affluent parents already making that choice while still locking out poorer parents.
"Students in Georgia deserve the opportunity to attend excellent, fully funded, diverse schools that affirm and sustain all aspects of their identity," said Terrence Wilson of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a group that advocates for equality of educational opportunity. "We believe that this bill will likely create a Georgia educational system that is more racially segregated and that does not provide adequate protections for students’ civil rights."
Holly Terei, a parent activist from Gwinnett County, said she benefited as a child from a voucher program in Ohio that was the "jump start" her family needed to afford private school tuition. She said the Gwinnett County schools have failed her children during the pandemic.
"Our family is not in a position to move to a different county," Terei said. "My family cannot afford private tuition. My family cannot afford to become a single income household so one parent can adequately homeschool. And so we are stuck."