Georgia’s School Voucher Bill on Brink of Approval by Governor After Multiple Past Failures

After several years of failed attempts by Georgia GOP lawmakers to expand the state’s school voucher program, Republican Senators achieved the necessary votes on Wednesday to advance the latest iteration of the controversial plan to Governor Brian Kemp for final approval.

Wednesday witnessed a gathering of Republican House Majority Caucus members in the Senate chamber as they celebrated the passage of the Georgia Promise Schools Act by a party-line 33-21 vote. This new legislation permits families with children in Georgia’s K-12 public schools to redirect $6,500 of state funding allocated to local school districts toward private school education or homeschooling.

Despite ongoing debates on whether the $6,500 allocation would sufficiently support financially struggling families in affording tuition at premier private institutions across the state, the dialogue persisted among critics of the voucher system.

Sen. Greg Dolezal, a Cumming Republican, emphasized that the $6,500 figure closely aligns with the average private school tuition in the state, presenting an attractive option for parents seeking alternatives for students in underperforming schools.

According to data from Private School Review, the average yearly private school tuition in Georgia stands at $11,893, with costs varying from $1,042 to $57,500.

Dolezal commended the efforts of GOP leadership in both chambers of the House and Senate, along with Gov. Kemp, for their persistence in shepherding Senate Bill 233 to the finish line before the March 29 deadline for this legislative session.

“I still remember back to my first year in 2019 when this bill faced defeat on the Senate floor,” said Dolezal. “It is truly meaningful to witness our unified support behind this tailored bill today, signaling a positive step forward for all.”

Recent years saw multiple attempts at enacting school choice proposals face setbacks as a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators united to forestall a plan seen as diverting crucial taxpayer funds from public to private schools. Particularly, Republican lawmakers from rural regions have opposed expanding voucher programs, citing concerns over local school funding sustenance.

Senate Bill 233 addresses persistent criticisms of voucher programs by focusing on making these opportunities available to low-income students and holding private institutions accountable for academic performance through state reporting mandates.

Under the provisions of the bill, private schools must conduct standardized tests on participating students, with vouchers prioritized for households earning under 400% of the poverty level, equivalent to $120,000 for a family of four.

If signed into law, promise scholarship vouchers are set to debut in the 2025 school year, marking a pivotal legislative priority for Gov. Brian Kemp this year.

Moreover, the bill earmarks state investment in the program at 1% of the Quality Basic Education formula budget, allocating approximately $141 million annually to fund tuition for an estimated 21,500 students.

This program is slated to operate within a 10-year window before its expiration, ensuring continuity for enrolled students until they graduate high school.

Addressing the affordability and impact of the $6,500 voucher, Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta, likened it to a diversion tactic from the Legislature’s broader failures in adequately funding many statewide school districts.

Parent expressed skepticism, stating, “A $6,500 voucher falls short of enabling quality private education, considering the state’s higher spending on public schools.

For genuine school choice discussions, Parent advocated for substantial financial assistance, highlighting the need to allocate $20,000 or $25,000 per child for an authentic selection in educational pathways.”

Senator Ed Setzler of Cobb County emphasized that the concept of school choice is often privileged by legislators and individuals who can afford top-performing public schools or alternative education options, unlike financially strained families.

“Senate Bill 233 aims to serve single mothers working tirelessly to provide their children with educational alternatives,” he expressed. “These families face financial constraints that prevent them from relocating to areas with better public schools or affording private education.”

Contrarily, Sen. Nabilah Islam-Parkes voiced concerns regarding private schools’ discretion in student selection, suggesting that potentially marginalized students could be excluded from benefiting in a diverse learning environment.

“The bill, under the pretext of choice, risks segregating and discriminating, leaving behind vulnerable groups like special needs and struggling learners,” raised the Duluth Democrat.

Critics on equal education opportunities, such as nonprofit IDRA and the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, condemned the bill for diverting resources from the state’s vast public school system, which caters to 1.7 million students.

Conversely, Americans for Prosperity-Georgia’s state director, Tony West, lauded the legislation as a pivotal move empowering families and students with expanded educational choices and resources to unlock potential futures in Georgia’s education landscape.

Reported by Ross Williams for the Georgia Recorder.

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