Georgia Voucher Expansion Bill Fails to Reach Vote

Published April 19, 2010

Crystal Beale fights back the tears when she talks about her husband, Sgt. First Class John Beale, and one of the last conversations they had about their children. Their son, Christopher, 13, and daughter, Calye, 8, were struggling in school while he was in Afghanistan.

“He always said, ‘I wish we could afford to put them in private school’,” Crystal said in the days before deciding to go to the Georgia State Capitol in March to lobby for legislation that would give military families a school voucher to transfer to the public or private school of their choice.

Beale’s husband was killed in action in Afghanistan’s Kapisa province last year.

When asked why the Georgia mom speaks on behalf of Senate Bill 361 and was invited to testify on behalf of the bill before the state Senate education committee, Crystal says, “This way John lives on. And if this law passes, there will be so many excited military families. When you get military families together, there is a tremendous bond because of what they go through.”

Would Expand Existing Program

With such sacrifices in mind, Georgia state Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) introduced legislation this year, known as the Early HOPE Scholarship, to give military families a voucher worth $5,000 to $9,000 per child to transfer to the school of their choice. There are approximately 110,000 active-duty military personnel in Georgia.

The proposal was also designed to help families with foster children by offering the approximately 15,000 foster children in Georgia a voucher for the same amount of money.

The bill did not reach the Senate floor for a vote.

The proposal was to have been the next step after several successful years of school choice legislation in Georgia. In 2007 the state adopted the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship, a voucher program for children with disabilities. Lawmakers in 2008 passed a $50 million tuition tax credit program, which allows corporations and individuals to earn a tax credit for donations earmarked to organizations that provide scholarships to children attending private schools.

In 2009 the state legislature adopted a bill giving public school students the option of transferring to any public school in their district.

Education Committee Approved

Under Georgia’s legislative rules, a new proposal must be adopted by one chamber or the other by the 30th legislative day for it to be considered for that year’s legislative session. Although the Senate Education Committee passed SB 361, the full Senate never took it up. That ended consideration of the bill for 2010.

“It was unfortunate that some senators did not make this a priority for 2010,” said Ben Scafidi, executive director of the Center for an Educated Georgia. “This was another great step toward moving school choice forward that had strong support among lawmakers, military families, and the public at large.”

Military Parents Testified

Military family members such as Tracy Clark, a Smyrna mother of four whose husband, Major Tim Clark, is deployed with the Army Reserves in Kuwait, testified before the Senate Education Committee in February.

Like other military moms, Clark said she liked the idea of being able to put her children in a private school, especially since military families get transferred often and as a result the children struggle in school.

“Having this option would be a big plus for a lot of us military folks,” she said. “We hope they would bring this idea back up for a vote as soon as possible.”

2011 Return Possible

Randy Hicks, president of the Georgia Family Council, said the legislature has taken significant steps toward bringing more school choice to the Peach State.

Despite a tough budget year, he expects an improving Georgia economy to make it easier for lawmakers to vote to widen school choice options in 2011, including for military families and those with foster children, as well as other possible options.

“I don’t see this as a setback as much as a pause in the effort to continue to give families the freedom to choose where they want to educate their children,” Hicks said. “Someday the nation will point to Georgia as the pioneer of how to educate kids and get the job done right.”

Susan Laccetti Meyers ([email protected]), a former editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal, writes from Georgia.