School Vouchers For All Under GOP Bill

Worth A Look, Education, Frontier Centre

Georgia would be the first state to offer vouchers to all public school students under a Republican plan introduced in the state Senate on Monday.

The bill from Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) would allot parents about $5,000 in taxpayer money to use toward private school tuition. Senate Bill 90 also would allow parents to switch their children from one public school to another.

Georgia’s education ranking is “near the bottom,” Johnson said. While the bill is not a “silver bullet,” he said, “Georgia is a conservative state that understands the free market.”

Voucher supporters say parents have the right to choose where their children attend class and that competition from private schools will make public schools stronger.

But public school groups have fought vouchers, saying lawmakers should fix struggling public schools rather than send taxpayer money to private schools.

Democrats quickly attacked Johnson’s bill and described it as a threat to public schools.

“Basically, it’s a bait and switch,” state Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon) said. “It really doesn’t address the problems in public schools. What you have to do is fund them more adequately.”

Under Johnson’s proposal, students who want to switch schools would have to qualify for admission at the new campus first and their parents would have to provide transportation, he said. Johnson estimated about 5 percent of parents would use the vouchers.

Johnson sponsored another voucher bill last year to allow children who attend failing public schools to go to other schools, but the measure stalled. He was more successful with a bill passed in 2007 to provide vouchers for students with disabilities.

Some public school advocates said the new voucher bill is unreasonable considering school systems face about $275 million in cuts next year.

“It is ludicrous to be trying to divert resources from our public schools,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, an advocacy group with about 75,000 members. “How much more battered down and beaten can they get?”

Nine states, including Georgia, offer vouchers, but those programs focus on low-income students or children with disabilities. Voters in Utah defeated a universal voucher referendum in 2007.

Johnson says Georgia has a chance of passing such a measure now because the state’s public education record is abysmal and people are sick of it. “We’re at the bottom year, after year, after year,” he said.