Pandemic adds twist to Legislature’s perennial school voucher debate

By: - February 16, 2021 8:17 pm

Rep. Wes Cantrell’s school voucher plan would allow families in online-only districts to send their children to private schools using state funds, but critics say that money should stay in public schools. Mayur Kakade/Getty Images

Georgia lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow a limited group of parents to send their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars, reigniting the debate over school vouchers in Georgia.

Woodstock Republican state Rep. Wes Cantrell’s House Bill 60 would create an education savings account using state funds, which participating families could use for private school tuition or other educational expenses.

“Personalized education plan accounts give parents the widest number of choices to address the specific needs of their children,” Cantrell said at a House Education Committee hearing Tuesday. “It’s the 21st century, and Georgia parents need a diverse portfolio of options to choose from when deciding what is the best educational path for their child.”

Rep. Wes Cantrell said his school voucher plan will give families more choices and save districts money. Critics say it funnels funds from public schools. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Cantrell has filed similar legislation in previous sessions.

School vouchers have been a controversial topic for years in the state, with educator advocates and school board groups generally opposing them, arguing that they funnel public money into schools without public oversight at a time when the state education budget has faced major cuts.

In a major change from last year’s version in response to COVID-19, students in school districts that do not have an option for 100% in-person learning for at least a semester would be eligible to participate.

The pandemic caused some Georgia schools to temporarily close their doors to in-person learning. That has created disruptions and hardships, especially for working families and those with children who have special needs.

As of Feb. 11, about 12 school districts of Georgia’s 181 were all virtual, and another 15 or so were on a hybrid schedule, according to a report from the state Department of Education.

Students in that classification would be at a lower priority for the program than the other four eligible groups – military families, students with disabilities, children in foster care and families making less than 200% of the federal poverty level or $53,000 for a family of four.

The bill proposes a cap of 0.5% of the state’s public school students eligible for the school year beginning this fall, or about 8,600 students. The cap would increase by half a percent each year to a maximum of 5%, or about 86,500 based on current enrollment.

Georgia has two voucher programs, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program and the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit.

Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday signed off on a spending plan that restores about 60% of about $950 million slashed from the state’s K-12 budget last June. In January, the federal government announced Georgia public schools would receive about $1.7 billion in CARES Act funding, but that money is intended to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic, said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

“Our public schools remain underfunded, with over $350 million in cuts made this past year that have yet to be restored,” she said. “CARES Act emergency funding was not intended to supplant the necessary state funding but to supplement it and provide for the unexpected costs incurred by districts due to the pandemic.” 

The bill would not affect the amount of funding schools get from local or federal taxes, so school districts could save money, Cantrell said, around $3,800 per student.

“We’re not taking away money for kids with disabilities,” Cantrell said. “If a kid with disabilities is having a great experience in public school, this is not a factor for them. And then if they lose the funding for that student, if the parent says, ‘I need to find a better place for him,’ they still retain 50%, give or take, of the funding.”

“But they still have to provide that service to the other students, the curriculum, and then there’s overhead costs,” said Rep. Becky Evans, an Atlanta Democrat.

“There will be a time if a student left a school that it would lead to, ‘Well, we only need one class now,’” Cantrell said. “So that school would save an exorbitant amount of money from one student. But then in the other cases, there’s lots of schools where that will happen. And it won’t really affect their fixed cost at all, or the overhead. So it’s an average cost, overall.”

Others disagree with Cantrell’s math.

Schools could still lose out because much of their funding comes from enrollment numbers, said Stephen Owens, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“The school district will lose its state and any federal funding for a student that goes to private school, and while some costs may fluctuate based on student enrollment, overhead costs will remain the same,” he said. “You can’t reduce spending on heating and air by one student’s worth.”

The nonprofit think tank’s analysis of a previous version of the bill found it would cost the state $448 million each year once it is fully implemented.

The lawmaker running Tuesday’s hearing enforced a strict one-hour time limit, and while more than a dozen people signed up to speak about the proposal, time ran out before any of them got the chance.

Chairman Matt Dubnik did not schedule a vote, but asked speakers to submit their statements for or against the legislation in writing “sooner rather than later.”

“There will be more to come on this, as I know that members of the committee have questions as well,” Dubnik said.

Margaret Ciccarelli, director of legislative services for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said after the meeting her organization is against an expansion of vouchers in Georgia, and its potential cost is a big reason why.

“We reroute already over $136 million annually from public coffers to private schools with little accountability. This would create a third voucher program at a time when all schools and communities are struggling to deal with the ongoing pandemic crisis, so it is not a great time to be contemplating sending more public dollars to private entities,” she said.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business executives to the living rooms of grieving parents. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting. A native of Cobb County, Williams holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Atlanta's Oglethorpe University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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