The committee voted 12-10 for House Bill 60 on a vote that crossed party lines.
The bill, which moves to the full House for more debate, would create educational savings accounts that parents could direct for learning-related purposes. Students would get about $5,700 on average, but amounts would vary per school district.
Georgia already has separate programs that give vouchers to special education students who attend private schools and gives state income tax credits to people who donate to private school scholarship funds. But Rep. Wes Cantrell, the Woodstock Republican sponsoring the measure, said a new program is needed to reach other children "at the margins" that may have needs not being met by public schools. He said the state can financially support both the program and its Quality Basic Education K-12 funding formula.
"I believe we can fully fund QBE and provide some options for the very small percentage of their kids who are not doing well in their public schools, and that’s what this is all about," Cantrell said.
Having to win over skeptical rural Republicans, Cantrell agreed to strictly cap the size of the program, starting at 0.25% of public school enrollment, or about 4,300 students and rising over time to a cap of 2.5% of students, or about 43,000 students. He said he hopes for expansion once a program is established.
"Once you have results and you have families who are talking about how their lives have been changed because they found the right place for their kid, then it’s an easy sell," Cantrell said.
At the beginning, that would represent roughly $25 million in state money, rising to $250 million. The number of students who could enroll from any individual school district would also be limited.
"So $25 million taken away from the current funding for public education," said Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat.
But Cantrell and other proponents say local school districts would actually come out ahead because local districts would keep their local tax money that they would otherwise be spending on the students who leave.
"The state funds follow them, but the local funds stay behind to serve the other kids," said Rep. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican. "This program actually lines the pockets of your district."
Cherokee County schools Chief of Staff Mike McGowan said that losing state funding could force service reductions.
"There are also additional pressures on local funding when you lose students," McGowan said.
Only students currently attending public schools would be eligible. Groups that would qualify include children in a family income below 200% of federal poverty level, children adopted from foster care, children of an active-duty military member stationed in Georgia, or children with special educational needs.
If those groups didn’t fill up the spots, they would then be offered to any child who have spent the previous school year enrolled in a public school that didn’t offer 100% instruction in person for at least one semester.
If there were more applicants than spots, they would be distributed randomly. Once a student enters the program, they could stay until they graduate high school, or until as late as age 21 for special education students. If all the money wasn’t spent, half of it could be rolled over each year, and any money left at the end of high school could be spent on an in-state college.
Private schools would have to operate for a year before they could accept money and would have to submit financial reports and allow audits. Schools couldn’t discriminate on race or national origin, must comply with health and safety laws and must meet minimum instruction time standards. The Georgia Student Finance Commission would pick three standardized tests that all students would have to take each year, publishing results in a report.
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