Bill would shift Georgia tax money to private schools

Georgia lawmakers are considering legislation that could send tens of millions of dollars in tax money to private schools.

House Bill 482 is called the “Educational Scholarship Act,” but critics are calling it an old-school “voucher” bill.

The state sends about $9 billion to public schools annually based mainly on the number of students enrolled. The bill, which got a first hearing Monday in a House of Representatives subcommittee on taxation, would instead allow parents to spend the allotment for their child on private school tuition.

Its chief sponsor, Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, said the option probably won’t get used much in areas he represents, where the public schools are generally strong. But he said not all students around Georgia enjoy the same quality and that polls he’s seen indicate Georgians want more options.

“There are students in our state without the opportunity to learn,” he said. “Parents are demanding more of a cafeteria approach.”

The legislation as currently written limits participation to a quarter of a percent of total enrollment, though that escalates annually. With 1.8 million public school students this year, participation would be capped at around 4,500 students the first year.

Schools are funded with a mix of local, state and federal funds. On average, the state portion comes to about $5,000 per student, so the cost could theoretically rise above $20 million in the first year, increasing with each subsequent year.

Public school advocates fear an erosion of funding for public schools. Georgia already puts $166 million less into education than its own school funding formula requires.

“If all of these students are already attending private schools, that means we have an additional expense,” said Margaret Ciccarelli, a lobbyist for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the largest teacher advocacy group in the state.

“I don’t think it’s fiscally prudent,” added Carolyn Wood, co-founder of a group called Public Education Matters.

Advocates for the bill dismissed concerns that the money would go to students already enrolled in private schools, saying participants would likely be newcomers to Georgia schools. The legislation limits participation to students who were enrolled in a public school the prior year, though the provision doesn’t apply to low-income families, military families, children in foster care, victims of bullying or students with disabilities.

Adam Peshek, with the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, said participants in similar programs in other states typically are in attendance zones of low-performing schools and schools with a history of violence. He said the scholarship would merely slow the growth in enrollment at traditional public schools.

The foundation works with state and local leaders to promote educational options with tools such as  education savings accounts and vouchers.

Jamie Lord, a lobbyist for the Georgia Center for Opportunity, said the scholarship would be a “natural evolution” in the state’s growing number of alternatives to traditional schools. For a decade, the state has offered private school tuition subsidies to students with disabilities and tax credit scholarships that let taxpayers reduce their state taxes owed with contributions to private schools.

Members of the committee raised a variety of concerns. The legislation proposed that students who received the tuition money be tested by an exam available nationally, but one member of the subcommittee wanted students to be tested with Georgia’s own state standardized tests. Another worried about the cost.

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Tax Reform took no vote on the bill, with its chairman, Rep. Paul Battles, R-Cartersville, saying more discussion was needed.

You can track this legislation and others in AJC’s legislation tracker.

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