(The Center Square) – A bipartisan group of Georgia lawmakers is sponsoring a bill to create a new state-funded scholarship program that would allow parents to select education options for their children.
House Bill 999, dubbed the Georgia Educational Freedom Act, would provide $6,000 for Georgia students each year in scholarship accounts to attend approved private schools of their choice.
Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, the lead sponsor of the bipartisan bill, said it would make sure education funding is directed at students and not “the system.”
“We’ve got to recognize that we already fund students directly with Pell grants and the G.I. bill for higher education,” Cantrell said. “We do the same for Pre-K programs like Head Start, so let’s bring that same logic to K-12.”
Students must attend a K-12 public school for a least six weeks during the school year right before applying for the program to qualify for the scholarship. The funds would be available to students until they are 20 years old – or 21 years old for children with disabilities.
The measure also creates a commission to review applications and produce a report of the program’s performance each year. Students would take assessments to evaluate the educational outcomes of the program. The Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts also would provide an added layer of oversight through annual audits.
Studies show taxpayers have saved money from school-choice vouchers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average cost per student in Georgia is $10,205 a year. An analysis by EdChoice found school vouchers saved Georgia taxpayers between $605 million and $1.1 billion in fiscal 2018.
Cantrell also stressed vouchers gives low-income students who can’t afford to pay for a private school an opportunity to select a school that may work better for them.
“We got to admit that even when our public schools do an excellent job, which they often do, even in those and in the best of circumstances, there are going to be a small percentage of students who don’t perform well in the traditional classroom setting and they need a different learning environment,” Cantrell said.
Three Democrats, Reps. Mike Glanton of Jonesboro, Angela Moore of Decatur and Patty Bentley of Butler, have co-sponsored the bill, along with Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, and Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton.
School-choice critics often slam voucher programs for redirecting public funding for private schools. Some critics also argue private religious schools condone discriminatory rhetoric or promote segregation. HB 999 requires schools in the voucher program to follow anti-discrimination laws.
“A public education system should ensure that all students have access to quality education, no matter their race, past mistakes, or circumstances of their birth,” Georgia Center for Opportunity Vice President of Public Policy Buzz Brockway said. “This bill opens that door for kids in our state.”