(The Center Square) – Two bills that would create education scholarship accounts in Georgia received initial approval Tuesday from the state House.
The House Subcommittee on Academic Innovation approved House Bill 60 and House Bill 999. Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, introduced both measures. They would require the state to set aside funding for private-school scholarships.
“It’s way past time, really, for Georgia to take a fresh look at the way we educate our children,” Cantrell said. “Because even when our public schools do an excellent job, which they most often do, there’s always going to be a small percentage of students who do not perform well in a traditional classroom setting for a variety of reasons.”
Cantrell filed HB 60 in the last legislative session, but it didn’t make it to the House or Senate floor for a full vote, so he filed another version, HB 999, dubbed the Georgia Educational Freedom Act. Unlike with HB 60, Cantrell received bipartisan support for HB 999. HB 60 also only offers scholarships to a selection of students.
HB 60 creates the accounts for foster care and military children, students with special needs and those from families earning 400% below the poverty line. It also extends the vouchers to students who attended public schools that did not offer in-person instruction for one semester.
Both proposals would require the state to provide around $6,000 for Georgia students each year in scholarship accounts to attend approved private schools of their choice or for other approved educational expenses. However, under HB 60, the state would fund the program only if it fully funds base education.
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.
Parents and advocates took to the state Capitol on Tuesday to voice their opinions on the bill. Some who opposed the voucher program said it would redirect public funding for private schools. Critics also argued the scholarships would not help low-income students as the sponsors intend because they may be priced out of schools that meet their needs even with the scholarships.
The average private school tuition in Georgia is $11,025 a year, according to Privateschoolreview.com.
The Georgia policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, Isabel Otero, said the voucher program could be risky for students with disabilities because they no longer will have federal protections they get in public schools.
Terrence Wilson, the regional policy and community engagement director for Intercultural Development Research Association, said he is concerned the bill would promote segregation. He also argued students’ academic performance in voucher programs had been proven to be lower than at public schools.
Both bills create 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.
Proponents of school choice said the legislation is a step in the right direction.
“This was a true bipartisan effort and we’re glad to see lawmakers working together for the common good of children and their education,” said Buzz Brockway, Georgia Center for Opportunity’s vice president of public policy.
Both bills would have to be approved in both chambers of the General Assembly before being sent to the governor. Cantrell said he only expects one bill to pass.