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Wednesday, March 13, 2024 - CORRECTION

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The House Education Committee this afternoon passed a revised version of the private school voucher bill that was defeated last session.  The bill, SB 233, has grown from 15 pages to 39 pages.*

In a rare move, House Speaker Jon Burns addressed the committee and gave his endorsement of the bill.  He told the committee, “We will not let our children continue to be trapped in a "failing schools."  [If schools in Georgia are indeed failing, the General Assembly need only look at themselves for inadequately supporting our schools: see class size, waivers, for example.]

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While most of the bill now deals with issues unrelated to the use of tax dollars to pay for or reduce the cost for affluent families who send their children to private schools, the voucher part of the bill is more expansive than the bill shot down in 2023.

Just as last year, the bill cuts funding for the lowest performing 25% of schools in the state.  The lowest performing schools are, of course, the poorest schools in the state with large numbers of students living in poverty.  This is how the private school vouchers are funded, literally taking from the poorest, most in-need students to pay for wealthier children to attend private schoolsIt is an amazingly cynical approach.

In addition being a student in the lowest performing schools, the family also must make less than 400% of the federal poverty level, which for a family of four is about $125,000.

The bill offers nothing for rural legislators, who are often protective of their local schools and where few private schools exist.

Proponents say the bill is about parental choice.  However, the only choice the bill provides is for the private schools who get to pick and choose which students, if any, they will enroll through this program.

As usual, there are no guard rails or meaningful accountability in the bill.  Voucher proponents routinely resist any attempts to add accountability or transparency.  Like wolves guarding the hen house, "education expenses," which may be paid by the state-funded private school voucher, are approved by a group of parents who are already benefitting from the program.  There is no government oversight to determine legitimate "education expenses" from those that are fraudulent or excessive.

In Arizona, and possibly soon in Georgia, wide-ranging fraud and abuse has resulted in vouchers being used to pay for "educational expenses" like trips to Europe to see the continent's famous museums, for horseback riding lessons, fancy TV sets, home gyms and spas, etc.

Eligible students can participate in the program beginning in kindergarten and can enjoy the benefits of state-funded private school education and "education expenses" for as long as the student is enrolled in private school or reaches the age of 20, for a total of almost $90,000 in free or discounted tuition.

To participate in the voucher scheme, benefitting private schools need only have been in a business one year, have insurance, and one year of reserves.  In terms of reporting on the education efficacy of the enrolling private school, only aggregated graduation data need be reported.  "Scores" of individual private schools, unlike public schools, will be hidden from the parents and taxpayers.

Discrimination by participating private schools is permitted, except enrollment may not be predicated on race, color, or national origin.  Private school may discriminate against based on disability, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, behavior, and socio-economic status among other things.

An amendment offered in committee sought to require enrolling private schools to only hire certified teachers but failed on a party-line vote.

Vouchers are not popular in Georgia.  A poll conducted by the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs earlier this year found that 2/3rds of Georgians said they oppose using taxpayer funds to pay for private schooling.  Another poll by the School later asked, "Which action do you think would best support students in underperforming schools?"

Only 15% said giving parents $6,500 to pay for tuition at a private school is the answer.  Forty-four percent said the state should provide public schools with additional state support.

There are "sweeteners" added to the bill designed to convince the Republicans who voted against the bill last year to switch their vote, such as providing state funding for public school districts to construct or repair or convert space for pre-K programs.  Increased weights for certain QBE formula categories are also included in the bill.

Simply put, SB 233 is welfare for the wealthy.  It offers nothing for rural communities in Georgia.  It is a bad deal for taxpayers, with no transparency so that can evaluate the program themselves. 
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