Ambitious Voucher Bill Defeated in Georgia

Published April 1, 2009

A bill to provide universal school vouchers in Georgia failed to make it through the state Senate after a ferocious lobbying campaign was mounted against the measure.

Though SB 90 had passed the Senate Education Committee on a 6-4 vote, state Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) had to withdraw it from the full body’s consideration in March because he did not have enough votes to get it passed.

Supporters are not giving up the fight to create the nation’s first statewide universal voucher program.

“The bill is dead for this session, but is still alive for action next year,” said Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit public policy and research group.

The bill would have allowed families to use state tax dollars to send their children to any public or private school in Georgia. It also would have expanded the state’s special-needs voucher program, created in 2007.

Big Tax Savings

Johnson believes the bill is crucial to Georgia’s future.

“This bill gives parents the freedom to choose the best school for their child and not have the government do it for them,” Johnson said. “Academic studies of vouchers indicate that student test scores improve, taxpayers save money, and parents are more satisfied [when these programs are in place].”

Adam Schaeffer, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, DC, said Johnson’s program would have saved Georgia taxpayers a large amount of money in a tough economy, had it passed this year.

“There have been numerous studies of actual, functioning school choice programs, and each program saves significant sums of money overall,” Schaeffer explained. “Sending children to a private school costs much less than sending children to public school. The local taxpayers are always better off—maybe the state government has to pay more, but the net effect is often a lot of saved money. The median tuition at a private school is $4,000. That is less than half what we spend per student in the public school system.”

Fiscal Benefits

McCutchen believes SB 90 could have improved Georgia’s worsening finances dramatically.

“Georgia’s revenue numbers are going from bad to worse, and education is one of the areas facing challenges. These trying times could provide parents of the state’s K-12 students with the opportunity to finally join the parents of college students, pre-K, and special-needs students able to use their tax money to choose a school that best serves their children while ensuring more funds are available for education,” McCutchen said.

“An analysis of this proposal by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation shows revenues per student would in fact increase by about $900 per student—10.3 percent—if a large number of students left public schools for [ones] their parents believe better serve their child,” McCutchen added.

Support for Tax Credits

Schaeffer said Georgia school choice advocates should now concentrate on expanding an existing $50 million universal education tax credit program created in 2008 to help residents send their children to schools of their choice.

Under that program, individual taxpayers contributing to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) may claim a dollar-for-dollar credit of up to $1,000 on their income taxes, and married couples filing jointly may claim up to $2,500. Corporate taxpayers may claim a dollar-for-dollar credit worth up to 75 percent of their total tax liability.

“Tax credits are absolutely a way to expand school choice,” Schaeffer said. “Education tax credits have been popular and have been expanded by bipartisan votes. There is less political support for vouchers—sometimes homeschoolers are uncomfortable with it, and that’s usually in theory a potent key to a bill like universal vouchers’ success. A lot of this matters to politicians who wonder what groups are going to reward them for their efforts.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information …

Georgia SB 90:

“Fiscal Impact of SB 90,” Georgia Public Policy Foundation:

Georgia Tax Credits for Student Scholarship Organizations, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice: