Georgia legislators’ school voucher push is failing and there is little time to recover

The recent plan to expand school credits in Georgia suffered a setback Thursday when the House of Representatives failed to hold a vote after more than an hour and a half of debate.

One Republican congressman said Senate Bill 233 was introduced because there were not enough votes to pass it. GOP leadership could revive the bill if they think they have enough support to pass it, but Wednesday is the final day of the 2023 Legislative Session.

Cumming Republican Greg Dolezal’s proposed legislation would provide $6,500 to the families of any Georgia public school family who chose to withdraw their child from an underperforming school and home school or private school.

Coupon laws are popular in Republican-run states, but Georgia lawmakers have struggled to expand the state’s limited program in recent years.

Proponents say state funds stand by the child, not the school district, giving parents the ability to tailor their children’s education to their specific needs.

“Instead of a one-size-fits-all top-down system, we can collectively pursue a bottom-up approach that is inclusive and respects the dignity and unique gifts of each child,” said Scott Hilton, Republican Representative for Peachtree Corners. “Some students need special attention, a different teaching method, a specific curriculum. By giving families more opportunities, we not only improve educational opportunities, but give every child an equal chance to succeed.”

Some Democrats disagreed with that last part.

Atlanta Democratic Assemblyman Phil Olaleye said the bill would not be of much help to children in rural Georgia, where private schools are fewer, or children from families who cannot afford the difference between the scholarship amount and tuition.

“Who really benefits from this voucher program? The winners are the privileged few families who have the means to pay tuition,” he said. “The losers? Hundreds of thousands of families are being faced with a choice that is virtually unattainable. The biggest loser? Georgia schools, which now face the impossible task of caring for a concentrated pool of our most vulnerable children, creating even more impossible conditions for improvement and success are created.”

Powder Springs Democrat David Wilkerson dismissed suggestions that the bill would be budget neutral because the $6,500 amount is based on the average state’s share of funding for a student’s education.

The actual state share varies by grade level and other factors, and Wilkerson said he was concerned that passing the law during a period of economic boom could force the state to fund private schooling when tuition is tighter.

“Whether you like this bill or not, the bottom line is: we need to know the costs, because what we’re doing is obliging students to pay and promising families that we have to keep going forever. And if we don’t know the cost now, how can we promise families that their children will have the means to go to private school?”

While disagreements over the bill have been largely internal to the party, some Democrats have offered their support for the measure, including Atlanta Rep. Mesha Mainor.

Mainor said she grew up in an area with an undesirable school system, but her mother used a different address to send her to a different school. She compared education to McDonald’s hamburgers and said all families should have the same choice.

“If you go to McDonald’s every day and get a burnt hamburger and burnt fries, will you keep coming back to that McDonald’s?” she asked. “That’s what the kids say. I don’t want to go where the burnt hamburger is. I don’t want to go where the burnt fries are. I want a fresh hamburger. I want a fresh education. i want something different Just give me something else.”