The Republican majority in the Georgia Assembly is looking to establish private school vouchers for students currently attending low-performing schools (schools rated below the 25th percentile). Senate Bill 233 would create “Promise Scholarship Accounts,” which the State of Georgia will give each student a $6,500.00 subsidy per school year to pay for student expenses related to homeschooling and private schools.
State Representative Todd Jones, a Republican from South Forsyth, carried the bill in the House and says this is a positive way out for families that are struggling to keep up in a competitive climate in education and college admissions.
“This is a chance to say to those children, those families, ‘We are here to give you an opportunity, a choice to be able to go to an alternative, to be able to do something at home or through hybrid, to be able to allow you to extend the educational opportunity,’” said Rep. Todd Jones.
“We can help the public school system and provide choice. We [have] got to be able to provide a system that allows the family to have an opportunity.”
If a parent wanted to use the money to pay for part of a private or homeschooled education, the money would be placed into a Promise Scholarship Account. And if a parent wants to draw down those funds to pay for a particular school, the state must also determine that the school is authorized to participate in the program.
Democrats impugned the idea because the funding for the vouchers would come directly from the Georgia State Budget.
“So in reality, we’re taking away more money from local school districts than they already get appropriated in the QBE formula,” said State Senator Derek Mallow, a Democrat from Savannah. “Not to mention we haven’t funded transportation in this state. We haven’t done that since Democrats were in control, add money to transportation, we haven’t made kindergarten mandatory. We haven’t taken Pre-K off the lottery program. So yeah, we got problems in education, but we haven’t done the basic steps to fix education.”
According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, more than $1.3 billion dollars in potential education funding have been lost due to the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit (QEETC) when the figure was tallied at the end of Fiscal Year 2022. The QEETC was created in 2008 and the program provides a tax credit to individuals that donate to pass-through organizations that then pay private school tuition for parents who apply.
Georgia’s private schools are not held to state standards or tested to measure a student’s performance, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Georgia’s private schools can reject students by income, ability, language proficiency, sexual orientation, or religion. Moreover, teacher certification is not required.
For concerned Georgians, there is an example of what might happen when more students take advantage of the program than estimated.
In 2022, the state of Arizona established a school voucher program of its own, a crowning achievement of former Governor Doug Ducey. The Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, as the program became to be known, allowed Arizona parents to send their children to private schools using state dollars that normally would be utilized in the state’s public schools. According to the Arizona Department of Education’s website, 50,088 Arizona students are beneficiaries of ESA, as of March 20th, to the tune of $350 million per year.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horme has pointed out questionable educational expenses from years past, including bounce houses, above-ground pools, outdoor pizza ovens and kayaks. The state has a list of items that are disallowed from being claimed as ESA expenses.
According to a draft parent handbook for the 2023-2024 program school year that has been posted on the Arizona Department of Education’s website, it states that while all “reasonable education-related expenses” will be approved, parents will need to submit evidence for supplemental items that are “not typically known to be used for education.”
Democrat Katie Hobbs defeated Republican Kari Lake in a contentious Gubernatorial race in 2022. One of Governor Hobbs campaign promises was to do away with the ESA program. She claimed expansion would underfund Arizona’s public schools by $1.5 billion over the next decade. Hobbs’ staffers estimated that the undo would save the state $135 million next fiscal year.
Could the same fate apply in the State of Georgia?
Thursday evening, the Georgia House of Representatives tabled discussion on Senate Bill 233 because they did not have the votes to pass the measure.
“This bill proposes a $6,500 taxpayer funded private school tuition subsidy, the average full time equivalent for middle school student allocation in Georgia is about $2900,” said State Rep. Lisa Campbell, a Democrat from Kennesaw. “In this bill, we’re giving twice that much money to private schools and to homeschoolers twice as much as our public schools get for that same child.”
With two days left in the legislative session, fully expect the idea of school vouchers to receive a vote. Currently, if the House passes the bill, it would go back to the Senate for final passage.
“We should not be diverting resources to support private interests that undermine Georgia’s public schools; especially our schools most in need that need more, not less,” said State Rep. Phil Olaleye, a Democrat from Atlanta.