Georgia Lawmaker Lays Groundwork for Universal School Choice Bill

Published December 1, 2008

In planning to introduce a major school reform bill in 2009, a high-ranking Georgia Republican lawmaker has launched a serious discussion about universal vouchers.

State Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) has told civic groups and grassroots leaders he intends to propose a plan providing every Georgia student a tuition voucher to attend the public or private school of their family’s choice.

“I think there’s a willingness in the legislature to consider some fairly aggressive reforms,” said Johnson. He noted efforts to increase funding by reducing class sizes and providing across-the-board salary increases to teachers have not yielded promised results.

Resistance to Change

State Rep. Alisha Morgan (D-Atlanta) disagrees. She wants more attention to be devoted to public education reforms, including comprehensive teacher training, merit-based pay, and relevant curricular opportunities, before she would support a major school choice program such as universal vouchers.

“I would be more likely to support universal vouchers if I knew we were genuinely and comprehensively addressing the needs of traditional public education,” Morgan said, “because I think universal vouchers by itself continues to ignore the vast majority of students who deserve a quality education.”

Johnson has begun to draft a bill. At press time, the details of the initial proposal remained undetermined.

Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a state-based research group, credited Johnson for his vigorous efforts to reach out to Democrats and minority leaders to build a coalition.

“That’s the kind of effort it’s going to take,” McCutchen said.

Targeted Alternative

Johnson does not expect there to be enough support in the Republican caucus alone to move forward with such expansive school choice legislation.

“I feel like there’s a growing interest in the African-American, Democratic caucus, which I think is ultimately critical to passing it,” said Johnson.

But Morgan, who favors a proposal that would provide scholarship assistance to students in chronically failing schools, is not sold on the idea of universal vouchers.

“Middle- to upper-income families would most benefit,” Morgan said. “I don’t think that levels the playing field.”

Polling Popularity

If the proposed bill passes, Georgia will become the first state with a universal voucher program.

The idea, first touted by the late economist Milton Friedman in 1955, nearly came to fruition in Utah in 2007, but an organized opposition campaign overturned the law at the ballot box before universal vouchers could be implemented.

A Public Opinion Strategies survey of 600 Georgians released in July found 55 percent wanted vouchers to be “available to all students,” while 40 percent thought they should be targeted at students in “chronically failing schools.” Support for universal vouchers was strongest among Republicans and African-Americans.

Even though legislation to enact vouchers for students in failing Georgia public schools failed in 2008, survey respondents favored the proposal by 69 percent to 29 percent. “There is broad public support here for vouchers,” Johnson said.

Johnson kicked off his campaign for universal vouchers with a speech commemorating Friedman at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation on July 31.

Growing Momentum

McCutchen noted recent growth in school choice opportunities for students through new legislation has changed the political terrain.

Georgia is in its second year of providing scholarships for special-needs students, and earlier this year the state adopted one of the nation’s most expansive tuition tax credit programs. Additionally, public school choice flourished with a 2006 law allowing districts to convert to flexible charter systems and establishing a new state-level charter school authorizer that bypasses stubborn local authorities.

“There are now children, teachers, and others who come to testify what school choice means to them,” said McCutchen. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”

David Pusey, education policy specialist for the Center for an Educated Georgia, a school choice advocacy group based in Norcross, shares a similar perspective on the new programs’ effects.

“As the word gets out there, people are getting excited,” Pusey said. “They want to take advantage of this.”

Embracing Choice

But Pusey observed it’s difficult to gauge how much momentum is available for an even more aggressive school choice proposal. The special-needs scholarship program is just completing its first year, and the tax credit program is still awaiting rules for implementation.

“The programs will show their merit as they come along,” Pusey said. “It’s going to take a lot of time. But that consumer mentality is going, and it can only continue to grow.”

Many Georgians already are embracing the power to make educational decisions, Morgan observed, and she says many of her fellow Democrats would benefit by listening more to the families they represent than their fears of alleged agendas to destroy public education.

“I think if we were to spend more time as policymakers talking with parents, what we would understand is that parents want a choice,” Morgan said.

Promoting Competition

Johnson said framing the issue of universal vouchers as a way to strengthen, rather than speak ill of, the traditional system already has gained some receptive audiences among business and community leaders.

“Instead of telling people how bad government schools are, I’ve been turning the message around and saying this will help our kids who remain in public schools,” Johnson said.

Competition as a means to bring systemic improvement is a theme the Republican leader repeats to back his universal voucher proposal.

“If we are going to compete in a global environment, we need to stop thinking how Georgia ranks next to Alabama and South Carolina, and start thinking how it ranks next to Austria and South Korea,” Johnson said.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

“New Poll: Georgians back vouchers,” Georgia Political, July 31, 2008: