Georgia Considers Education Savings Accounts

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A bill in Georgia that would allow parents to use state money toward private school tuition or other educational expenses could find its way to the House floor for a vote with a little help from a key tax policy committee.

The bill, authored by Representative Mark Hamilton, would let parents create an “education savings account,” which would be funded by state money, reports Paula Rotondo for 13WMAZ.  According to this year’s figures, the total amount in the account could be around $4,400.  Meanwhile, federal and local money would remain with the public school district.

The bill would offer parents more options in choosing the best educational strategy for their child, including private schooling, private tutors at home, or home schooling.  Supporters also argue that the bill offers a way to customize education for students with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or students who have been the target of bullying.

“Sometimes parents know the best for their children, and this is simply giving them a pathway if they want to exercise that,” Hamilton said this week.

Meanwhile, critics believe the programs to be an end-run around state constitutions that do not allow state money to spent on religious schools.

The Georgia School Board Association shares the feelings of other education stakeholders who say the bill is a voucher disguised under a different name.  A number of individuals representing teachers, school boards and superintendents spoke at a February hearing, asking lawmakers to turn the issue over to an education reform committee, writes Kathleen Foody for The Washington Times.

Rep. Mickey Stephens, a Savannah Democrat and retired teacher who sits on the Ways and Means committee, this week called the proposal “dressing up a voucher and making it look like a scholarship.”

“If you can afford to send your kids to private school, you don’t need a voucher,” he said.

The bill would disqualify those students who are in kindergarten or first grade from participation in an attempt to address concerns that parents who never wanted to enroll their children in the public school system in the first place would benefit from the savings account.

In order to be eligible, students would need to have been in the public school system for at least one year.  The bill would allow no more than 8,500 students to benefit across the state for the 2015-16 school year, with an additional 17,000 students allowed to participate the following year.  The third year would see the cap completely lifted.

While the bill received a hearing this week, no vote has taken place as of yet within the House’s Education Committee.  However, the bill was taken up with the House Ways and Means Committee this week.  The committee usually deals with tax policy.

Georgia is not the first state to consider a program like this, which already is in place in Arizona and Florida.  The National Conference of State Legislatures said lawmakers in a dozen states, including Georgia, are considering similar legislation this year.

A tuition tax credit program already exists within the state that allows individuals to receive a credit for donating to private school scholarships under the management of nonprofit providers, or donating toward a special needs scholarship given to students with disabilities or who meet other requirements.