Georgia Legislators Propose New School Choice Programs

Published May 1, 2008

If legislators and parent activists succeed in passing two key pieces of legislation, Georgia–which for decades offered few options for parents to determine the best schools for their children–may quickly become the state with the most private school choice in America.

On April 1, the state Senate passed a $50 million individual and corporate scholarship tax credit proposal on a 32-20 vote, sending it to Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) for his signature. At press time, Perdue had not committed to signing the bill.

Meanwhile, a second measure, S.B. 458, which passed the Senate earlier in the session, was still pending in the House. If passed, that legislation will implement a “failing schools” voucher program to free children from public schools that do not meet federal performance benchmarks for seven consecutive years, or which are about to lose their accreditation.

Parents Rally in Support

Parents throughout the state, which received the dubious distinction of a “D” for student academic achievement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2006 and an achievement ranking of a “D+” by Education Week magazine in 2008, have rallied around the proposals, according to officials at the Georgia Family Council (GFC).

“Many parents in Georgia have been frustrated to see, year after year, their children locked in an educational environment that does not meet their needs,” said Jamie Self, a GFC government relations consultant. “This frustration is often compounded by the lack of financial resources to access any other option.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) is the primary sponsor of the failing-schools voucher legislation, while Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn) carried the corporate and individual scholarship tax credit bill. Johnson and Casas teamed last year to sponsor the highly successful Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program, which Perdue signed in May 2007.

Voucher Legislation

Invigorated by the success of the special-needs program, through which 5,000 parents applied for scholarships in just over three months, Johnson set out to craft legislation to address another immediate need: providing options for students in the failing Clayton County school system and in systems with similar student achievement deficiencies.

Georgia education officials say if Clayton County doesn’t dramatically improve its ability to educate children by the fall of 2008, it will lose its accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). SACS has identified nine areas where the district must make significant improvements.

Johnson’s bill, S.B. 458, would provide vouchers–valued at $4,000 to $5,000 per student–to children who attend schools that either face the loss of their accreditation or have received the federal designation of “needs improvement” under the No Child Left Behind Act for seven consecutive years.

Ohio Model

Johnson’s proposal resembles Ohio’s EdChoice scholarship program, which provides private school choice scholarships for students that have attended failing public schools. More than 7,000 Ohio students receive vouchers through the program, according to the state’s education office.

Johnson dismisses accusations that he is seeking to dismantle the public education system with his initiatives, saying his goal is to see public schools improve and for parents to be given more options.

“I graduated from a public school, and my children graduated from a public school, but I believe in local control,” Johnson says. “The best form of local control is parents having real control over their children’s education.”

Tax Credit Bill

Casas’s bill would develop a corporate and individual scholarship tax credit program, allowing corporations to receive tax credits–not just deductions–for making donations to scholarship-granting or school tuition organizations. In turn, those organizations would provide scholarships to low-income children so they can attend private schools.

Modeled after the nation’s largest private school choice program, Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program, Casas’s proposal would require nonprofits seeking to participate in the program to spend no less than 90 percent of their contributions on direct scholarships.

The Casas proposal would allow corporations to receive a 75 percent tax credit for donations to the scholarship-granting organizations, and the program would be capped at $50 million in annual credits. Unlike Pennsylvania’s program, Casas’s proposal would also allow individuals to receive tax credits–up to $1,000 per person and $2,500 for married tax filers–for making contributions to scholarship-granting nonprofits.

Casas is in the unique position of serving as a part-time legislator and a public school teacher. Despite opposition from national and local education bureaucracies, he’s determined to continue advancing school choice legislation.

“I’ve been a supporter of school choice since before I started teaching,” Casas said. “And as I teacher I have come to realize that the system is broken and that children really do get left behind.”

Momentum Building

With the state’s existing special-needs scholarship program, the potential $50 million individual and corporate scholarship tax credit program, and a failing-schools voucher bill, choice is certainly on the minds of–and on the horizon for–Georgia parents in 2008.

If both bills are enacted, Georgia could become the most parent-friendly state in the nation in providing private school choice. Family advocates say the changes will have significant implications.

“We all know that children who are shut off from educational opportunity face a serious economic struggle as adults, which often locks families into cycles of poverty for generations,” Self noted.

“Because of the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship program,” Self continued, “parents have seen that school choice can provide hope and opportunity for all students, regardless of income, race, or gender. That is why we’re seeing such tremendous momentum for school choice in Georgia.”

Andrew Campanella ([email protected]) is director of communications and marketing at the Alliance for School Choice in Washington, DC.