Vouchers Gain Legislative Momentum in Georgia

Published January 1, 2009

Buoyed by growing participation in his state’s existing school choice programs and with public opinion surveys showing vast support for vouchers, Georgia state Sen. Eric Johnson hopes to convince fellow lawmakers to pass the nation’s first statewide universal voucher bill during the 2009 legislative session.

“I know you think this is radical—and it is,” Johnson (R-Savannah) said at a July event hosted by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation honoring the late Milton Friedman, an early proponent of universal vouchers. “But let me offer some comfort and hope: The people of Georgia want this!”

Johnson is leading the charge for school choice in the Georgia Senate. Last year, he and state Rep. David Casas (R-Lilburn) successfully sponsored legislation creating a voucher program enabling 200,000 special-needs students to attend private schools. With that, Georgia became the nation’s 13th state to offer a program allowing parents to use public dollars to send their children to the public or private school of their choice.

Parents Respond

Of the special-needs students who applied for the scholarship this academic year, the state’s education board deemed 1,600 eligible—80 percent more than the number of students using the scholarships last year.

In 2007-08—the program’s first year of operation—117 schools and 907 children participated, mostly in the Atlanta metro area. This year, 145 schools statewide are participating.

“Hopefully the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship is bringing some sense of normalcy to children and their parents who are finding hope in smaller classrooms, different schools, and happier educational environments,” Casas wrote in an October 22 Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed.

Expanding Choices

School choice program participation is likely to continue growing with the approval of a new tuition tax-credit policy and several changes in Georgia’s charter school laws.

A bill Casas successfully sponsored during the 2008 legislative session fixed financial flaws to ensure state-chartered schools are funded proportionately to traditional public schools and created a Charter School Commission that can overrule a local district’s decision to deny a charter school application.

Such action was needed, advocates said, because too many school districts were failing to approve charter school applications.

“Around 80 percent of the districts in Georgia have never approved them, and I would venture to say most are opposed,” said Kelly McCutcheon, executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Funding equity should encourage a closer working relationship between start-up charters and local school systems, McCutcheon said.

10,000 Children Benefit

Johnson also helped steer legislation in 2008 creating Georgia’s new $50 million tax-credit program—the nation’s second-largest after Florida’s ($88 million).

Corporations receive a 100 percent tax credit for donations—up to 75 percent of their total state tax liability—to scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs). Individuals and married couples who donate up to $1,000 and $2,500, respectively, also receive a 100 percent credit on their state tax returns.

The Alliance for School Choice estimates more than 10,000 children could benefit from the scholarships that will be administered by the seven SGOs approved during the 2008 legislative session.

“Georgia’s is the broadest law in the whole country,” McCutcheon said.

“The only restriction is the $50 million [statewide total] cap on individual and corporate contributions to school choice scholarship organizations. “There’s no income limit. Anyone is eligible.”

Long Odds

Johnson’s universal voucher bill will face an uphill battle when he introduces it this year.

Sixty-two percent of voters in Utah rejected a similar program in a 2007 ballot referendum. The measure failed to win a single county.

But Johnson points to several polls showing overwhelming support for the idea among Peach State residents as a reason to believe it will succeed there. A Public Opinion Strategies poll focusing on metro Atlanta found 70 percent of citizens in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, Dekalb, Fayette, Forsyth, and Gwinnett counties support vouchers for children in failing schools.

Support for choice was found among urban and suburban voters of all political persuasions and races. Even a majority of teachers (55 percent to 43 percent) and public school employees (two to one) support vouchers.

Good Deal

The state teachers union says Johnson’s plan is untenable with the state facing a $2 billion deficit. Supporters say the plan could actually reap savings for public schools.

“It depends on how the bill is structured,” McCutcheon said. “Right now, the tuition tax bill is unlimited—scholarships can be $20,000. But if you give a partial tax scholarship—say, $4,000—a lot of middle-class families could pay the other $4,000 or whatever it costs to send their children to a private school while also saving taxpayers a whole lot of money.”

The average public school in Georgia spends $10,500 per student. The average private school in Georgia charges about $4,000 less in tuition—a fact Johnson cites as proof that choice actually leaves “more money behind to educate fewer students.”

Johnson’s universal voucher proposal will likely offer a debit card similar to the “E-card” many now use to pay for health care. The card would have $10,500 on it in the form of a personalized budget parents could use to purchase tuition, tutoring, books, and computers that best fit their children’s educational needs.

“That’s not how we do it now,” Johnson said. “Today, the state funds the local systems and the systems fund programs. We do not fund children! What a revolution—a personalization revolution.”

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information …

“New Polls: Georgia Voters Back Vouchers,” Georgia Political and Policy Digest, July 31, 2008: http://www.georgiapoliticaldigest.com/cgi/sm/exec/view.cgi?archive=9&num=21535