Private-School Vouchers Narrowly Clear Georgia House

Dave Williams

Friday, March 15th, 2024

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A controversial private-school vouchers bill squeaked through the Georgia House of Representatives Thursday.

The bill, which would provide vouchers worth up to $6,500 to help students in low-performing public schools transfer to a private school, passed the Republican-controlled House 91-82, the minimum number of votes needed to win passage in the 180-member chamber.

The legislation next must return to the state Senate, which passed it last year, because House Republican leaders have made a number of changes to the measure.

Some of the House changes are aimed at limiting the voucher program’s financial impact on the state’s general fund budget. It prohibits spending more than 1% of Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) fund on vouchers, a cap that is currently set at $140 million a year.

In a bid to steer the vouchers to low- and middle-income Georgians, only students in families earning no more than 400% of the federal poverty limit – currently $120,000 a year for a family of four -would qualify for the program. The cap would be increased only if the General Assembly puts more money into vouchers.

“What you have before you is a responsible piece of legislation that will enhance the educational options we give children,” House Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, R-Milton, told her House colleagues. “I have rarely encountered regular citizens who wanted fewer options.”

House Democrats argued that private-school vouchers aren’t the way to help the 90% of Georgia students attending public schools they said are underfunded despite the state having fully funded the QBE for six of the last seven years.

“Fully funded does not equal sufficiently funded,” said Rep. Saira Draper, D-Atlanta.

“Vouchers are simply the defunding of public education,” added Rep. Miriam Paris, D-Macon. “Our focus should be to strengthen public schools.”

Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said vouchers would not help students in rural Georgia because there aren’t many private schools in rural counties. That was the reason a group of rural House Republicans cited in defeating the bill on the House floor last year.

But Jones said 79% of Georgia students live within 10 miles of a private school.

Rep. Todd Jones, R-South Forsyth, pushed back on the notion that offering private-school vouchers would cripple public schools financially. He said Georgia’s public schools have $6 billion in reserves.

“To suggest there’s not enough cash to make targeted investments is intellectually dishonest,” he said.

The House version of the bill also includes a number of provisions unrelated to vouchers. It would codify all teacher pay raises lawmakers have approved since 2019, Gov. Brian Kemp’s first year in office, which have increased teacher salaries by $6,500 per year.

In a move to increase enrollment in pre-kindergarten classes, the legislation also would let public schools use state capital construction funds to build new pre-k facilities.

The bill would take effect during the 2025-26 school year and expire at the end of June 2035.