Georgia Looks to Build on School Choice Momentum

Georgia state lawmakers have gained strong support for school choice programs over the last year — and continue to make progress. Earlier this month, voters passed an amendment to the Georgia constitution that will allow the creation of charter schools through a state-level commision. Riding this momentum, school choice advocates plan to expand the existing voucher program that uses public money to pay for private-school tuition.

Currently the program serves children with special needs who are not getting the support they need from public school programs and services. These children are legally defined as those with individualized education plans, which include students with a range of learning disabilities, autism, deafness, blindness, and severe disruptive behavior.

Individuals and corporations can allocate part of their state taxes to “Student Scholarship Organizations” (SSO), which then send it along to the private schools that they represent.

Representative Earl Ehrhart, who helped write the law governing SSOs, hopes to expand the program’s current cap of $51.5 million to $100 million during the 2013 legislative session. In the 2011-2012 school year the program served 2,965 students, but left many excluded when money ran out by mid-August.

Ehrhart also hopes to incentivize parents to donate to public school enrichment efforts such as teacher training, music, and foreign language programs through an additional $200 million tax credit program.

Opponents, however, argue that the SSO voucher program is in need of stricter regulation and increased transparency. They say there is little public disclosure about which schools actually receive money.

Individual SSOs are free to disclose how much money they receive and how it is spent – and many do – but the state is legally barred from releasing such information to the public. Despite the fact that the money for this program comes from taxpayers, no state agency, including the Department of Revenue and the Department of Education, is permitted to publicly share which schools and pupils receive the scholarships or their dollar amount.

Ehrhart doesn’t want more regulations placed on what many Republican leaders call a successful school-choice program. “To me, we are disclosing a great deal. I think what disclosure becomes is a code word for wanting to regulate more of what we do.”

State schools Superintendent John Barge also points out that the voucher program sends money to private schools that do not have to meet the annual yearly progress standards that public schools are bound to.

“We are accountable to the taxpayers of Georgia for the dollars we give to our schools, and unless schools receiving vouchers have the same level playing field as all of our public schools, there’s no way of knowing whether or not those students are receiving a better education.”

Opponents of the voucher program expansion also worry that the program drains funds from the state treasury and public schools, and that the funds can be easily misused and manipulated by going to students who already attend private schools.

Anne Mishkind

Anne Mishkind

Anne Mishkind holds a Master of Philosophy in Political Thought and Intellectual History from the University of Cambridge. She has worked in education advocacy and media and has a strong interest in education reform.