Controversial ‘education savings account’ bill likely to return in 2020

Backers of proposed "education savings accounts," or so-called vouchers, argue parents should have more flexibility to meet their child’s educational needs. Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Georgia lawmakers could get another bite of the apple next year, as controversial legislation that proposes to steer state money away from public schools for parents to pay for private school tuition is likely to return after stalling early this year.

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan’s Policy Director Mike Dudgeon said Friday that behind-the-scenes maneuvering’s been underway since legislation for the so-called voucher program was defeated this spring when some Republican senators broke partisan rank.

The failure to get legislation passed in 2019 isn’t stopping supporters from making another push to alter Georgia’s education funding priorities.

The “education scholarship accounts” would place the state’s share of public school funding into an account for parents to decide which types of educational services it would go toward. That could mean enrolling in a religious private school, joining a summer reading program or maybe speech therapy sessions.

The scholarships would be available to special needs students, low-income students, children with parents who serve in the military, children adopted from foster care and bullied students.

Any money remaining could go to students that fall outside of those groups, said Dudgeon, a former state lawmaker who backed similar legislation in 2017.

But getting the bill passed in round two won’t be easy, he said.

“It’s an incredible political lift in Georgia,” he said during a panel discussion at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s legislative policy forum last week. “It’s opposed vehemently by (many) public education folks even when we put up enormous guardrails on legislation which capped a very small percentage of people.”

This wouldn’t be the first school voucher program in Georgia, although this version would be much more extensive. 

About 4,600 special needs students now receive money from a voucher program created in 2007 that can be used at private schools.

Backers of the proposed new voucher program for the general student population argue parents should have more flexibility to meet their child’s educational needs.

But the proposed program consistently draws the ire of many Democratic lawmakers and some state public education associations that worry it will drain money from school districts and that the program lacks oversight.

Public schools will actually save money because they don’t have to educate as many students, argues the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Others argue that public schools would feel the burden by having millions of dollars diverted away from them, according to the opposing analysis from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

The Georgia Association of Educators, which represents teachers. rejects the claims of some legislators that public school districts would benefit from education savings accounts because they would still keep federal and local money.

“This is a common pro-voucher argument though it is not factually accurate, of course, because federal dollars disappear when a student leaves the system,” the association said in a statement earlier this year.

The push to create education savings accounts in the 2019 legislative session fizzled on the last day for a bill to cross chambers and its lack of strong GOP support contributed to its failure.

Sen. Ellis Black, a Republican from Valdosta, voted against Senate Bill 173 in March and said Friday that without at least one significant change his vote won’t be swayed the next time around.

He objects to a funding formula that was based on the county’s tax digest, which could have a major impact on rural communities’ school districts. 

“If you’re going to do something it ought to be the same amount of money for everyone no matter where they live, Black said Friday.

Dudgeon said at Friday’s event that Georgians shouldn’t worry that the accounts will cause a mass exodus of students from public schools and parents should have them as an option.

“We don’t have any kind of account in Georgia where parents can make educational choices for their kids,” he said. “It’s about the fact that there are a lot of people that would like to choose from a menu of services.”

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.