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Georgia school voucher bill narrowly clears longtime obstacle with state House passage

Rep. Mesha Mainor, R-Atlanta, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 233 at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The bill would give $6,000 a year in state funds to the parents of each child who opts for private schooling. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
(Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Rep. Mesha Mainor, R-Atlanta, speaks in favor of Senate Bill 233 at the Georgia State Capitol on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The bill would give $6,000 a year in state funds to the parents of each child who opts for private schooling. (Natrice Miller/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Georgia Republicans powered a voucher plan funding private school tuition and home schooling through the state House on Thursday, nearing a goal that has long eluded the state's school choice advocates as GOP leaders overcame longstanding skepticism from some rural members of their party

The House voted 91-82 for Senate Bill 233, passing it with one vote to spare. The same bill failed last year when 16 Republicans voted against it. Thursday, seven Republicans and one Democrat who opposed the measure last year flipped to support it.

The vote sends the bill back to the Senate for what could be a single up-or-down vote on final passage. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp backs the voucher plan, including devoting a substantial portion of his State of the State speech to advocating for it. And Republican House Speaker Jon Burns of Newington began to forcefully advocate for the bill after spending the summer on the sidelines.

“We are going to empower our parents to make the best educational decisions for their children and give them the tools to succeed for generations to come!” Burns said in a statement after Thursday's vote.

The bill would provide $6,500 education savings accounts to students attending public schools that rank in Georgia’s bottom 25% for academic achievement. That money could be spent on private school tuition, home schooling supplies, therapy, tutoring or even early college courses for high school students.

It differs from last year's failed measure, having been combined with a number of other education initiatives. But opponents argue it would subtract resources from public schools, with school districts losing state aid as children depart, even as other students will remain behind.

Rep Vance Smith of Pine Mountain, one of eight House Republicans who continued to oppose the bill, said lawmakers should instead seek to solve dysfunction in schools.

“When the dust settles, you’ve still got children in the classroom," Smith said. "What are we doing for those children that are left in the classroom?”

The new program would be limited to spending 1% of the $14.1 billion that Georgia spends on its school funding formula, or $141 million. Lawmakers would appropriate money for the voucher separately, and not take it directly out of the formula. That could provide more than 21,000 scholarships. Students who could accept them are supposed to have attended an eligible public school for at least two consecutive semesters, or be about to enter kindergarten at an eligible public school.

Students from households with incomes of less than four times the federal poverty level would prioritized for the scholarships. Four times the federal poverty level is about $100,000 for a family of three.

Parents would have to provide proof of allowed expenditures to a new Georgia Education Savings Authority to claim the money. All of a family's eligible children could qualify for the program.

Democrats argue the money isn't enough to pay tuition at most private schools, and that private schools aren't available in some rural areas. They also say private schools don't have to accept all applicants and could discriminate against people with differing social and religious views. Rep. Karlton Howard, an Augusta Democrat, said the plan increases inequality, favoring people with the resources to make up the difference.

“It is leaving the least and the less behind to fend for themselves," Howard said.

Republicans see it differently, though. Mesha Mainor, an Atlanta Republican, switched from the Democratic Party in part because of her support for vouchers. She said the bill would help at least some people, claiming members of her former party don't want to help any students in poorly performing schools.

“They are growing up in a cycle of poverty and a cycle of desperation," Mainor said "Today, you can make a change for them.”

The Georgia effort is part of a nationwide GOP wave favoring education savings accounts following the pandemic and fights over what children should learn in public schools.

Other parts of the revamped bill include writing current teacher pay raises into Georgia’s K-12 school funding formula, letting public school prekindergarten programs qualify for state aid to construct and furnish buildings, letting students enroll in other public school districts that will accept them and increasing tax credits for donations to public schools.

The language on teacher raises is partly symbolic — lawmakers have been increasing pay using budget bills in recent years.

Georgia already gives vouchers for special education students in private schools and $120 million a year in income tax credits for donors to private school scholarship funds.

Alexia Ridley joined WUGA as Television and Radio News Anchor and Reporter in 2013. When WUGA TV concluded operations, she became the primary Reporter for WUGA Radio. Alexia came to Athens from Macon where she served as the News Director and show host for WGXA TV. She's a career journalist and Savannah native hailing from the University of Michigan. However, Alexia considers herself an honorary UGA DAWG!