School choice may continue its slow but steady gains in Georgia with legislation to expand the state’s voucher program to cover foster children and military families.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers has introduced Senate Bill 361 for the current session. The bill broadens the Georgia Early HOPE scholarship, originally passed in 2007. Existing law allows only families of children with state-defined special needs to receive vouchers.
Rogers’ bill is a follow-up to previous bills introduced by former Sen. Eric Johnson (R), who resigned last year to run for governor. Johnson sponsored the special-needs bill, as well as another bill to expand the voucher program to all students in the state.
The state Senate education committee approved SB 361 by a 5-2 vote. The bill awaits a vote by the full Senate. If the Senate passes the measure, it will head to the House for approval.
The earlier, special-needs voucher program has expanded rapidly since its inception three years ago.
“The experience in Georgia with our special needs scholarship program has been very favorable,” said Ben Scafidi, an economist at Georgia College and director of the Center for an Educated Georgia, a state school reform organization. “Students using a special needs scholarship have experienced large learning gains in their new private schools relative to special needs students overall.”
Scafidi said he applauds Rogers for seeking to expand vouchers’ eligibility to other students, especially given the impressive academic results, taxpayer savings, and parent satisfaction with the current program.
Scafidi noted student participation in the special needs scholarship has grown even though the vouchers are about $3,500 less than districts’ per-pupil spending on special needs students in public schools. Scafidi’s organization found “parents overwhelmingly prefer their new private schools relative to the public schools that their special needs children formerly attended,” he said.
An expanded voucher program would make 15,000 children in foster care and 110,000 active-duty military dependents eligible for vouchers.
SB 361 would provide these students with a voucher for around $6,000, the amount Georgia appropriates for individual students. Parents would be responsible for any tuition exceeding the voucher’s value.
Rogers says expanding scholarships to include foster children makes sense because they often have the same sorts of challenges that special needs students face, including fetal-alcohol syndrome and emotional problems.
Active-duty military personnel are often assigned to a state without their input, which can be a disadvantage for members of the armed services who move from states with better performing public schools. Vouchers may help ameliorate that problem, Rogers said.
Charter School Successes Noted
Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in Atlanta, supports expansion of school choice in the state. “We are very excited about extending the opportunity for quality education to our military and foster care families,” he said.
“We believe any effort to give children in Georgia more quality education choices is a good thing. Research shows that school choice not only leads to improved student achievement in all schools but also helps improve graduation rates,” McCutchen added.
McCutchen noted state studies have shown Georgia charter schools outperform similar traditional schools while enrolling a higher percentage of minority and low-income students.
“Our Special Needs Scholarship has been a great success, and the new tax credit scholarship program is off to a good start,” he said.
Although reformers such as McCutchen would like to see the state move faster, she acknowledges the political realities.
“The incremental approach provides us with students and parents who can testify to the positive experience school choice has given them,” McCutchen explained. “At the same time, we now have evidence to easily refute the doomsday rhetoric of those who want to deny choices to children.
“School choice is not the only answer,” he added, “but it is a critical component to bringing all of our schools up to the standards we expect.”
Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.
Scafidi’s study on the special-needs voucher program: http://www.heartland.org/schoolreform-news.org/Article/27280/Education_Choice_Works.html