The failed Georgia school vouchers bill finds ardent support in a single Democratic legislature

Democrats celebrated a rare victory under the Gold Dome in March when, with the help of a handful of Republicans, they defeated a plan to expand Georgia’s school voucher program.

But Atlanta State Assemblywoman Mesha Mainor, the only Democratic pro-voucher voter, didn’t celebrate.

Flanked by Republican state representatives Reynaldo “Rey” Martinez of Loganville and Lauren Daniel of Locust Grove, Mainor vowed Thursday to push the controversial plan further when lawmakers meet again in January.

“If people have the courage to actually stand up and do what their constituents want, the school’s election could very well pass this next legislative session,” she said.

Cumming Republican Greg Dolezal’s Senate Bill 233, which could be revisited in the next session, would send $6,500 to families of children in the bottom 25% of Georgia schools to get them out and home or in private schools can teach.

Advocates say this is the average amount the state pays to educate a child, and the school that a child leaves would still receive federal and local funds, which they say results in a net gain. Opponents say it’s not easy to make up for a $6,500 loss by taking a student’s teacher’s salary or school bus fuel out of the budget.

“I agree with parents who demand a great education for their children and are not getting it today,” said Stephen Owens, director of education at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “However, diverting public money to private schools, which have a proven track record of underperforming their public school counterparts on average, is not a solution.”

“Instead of supporting failing private schools, Georgia legislators should work to provide schools with the resources that meet the needs of each child,” he added. “Georgia remains one of only six states without additional funding for educating students in poverty, providing schools with only enough funding for one school counselor for every 450 students. We need policymakers who meet the constitutional responsibility of public education for all children, not just those who choose to attend discriminatory private schools.”

Democrats say they see coupons as a way to funnel money from institutions that are accountable to voters and must meet state standards on things like testing and nondiscrimination to private schools that don’t have the same standards.

Mainor has upset her party before, and some Democrats viewed her voucher vote as just the latest betrayal. Sandy Springs Democratic Sen. Josh McLaurin publicly offered a $1,000 campaign donation to a potential main opponent.

Although he didn’t mention McLaurin by name Thursday, Martinez implied that the senator’s criticism was inappropriate.

“I wonder if this senator has kids that go to underperforming schools,” Martinez said. “I don’t know. I can’t answer that. But I’ll tell you something I found out about the senator. He did pretty well. I heard he was an attorney. I heard he was a Yale went to law school. Well, good for him. Good for him. I’m proud of him. Congratulations. I’m sure his parents are very proud of him. But guess what? Not everyone has that opportunity.”

McLaurin dismissed Martinez’s criticism.

“Rather than attend press conferences with the only Democrat who voted for SB 233, Rep. Martinez should probably spend his time courting the fifteen Republicans — including nine committee chairs — who voted against,” he said in a text.

Republican defectors, largely from rural areas of the state, have been under a lot of pressure to vote against their local school districts’ coupons. They have been largely silent on the issue since the session ended, but Mainor continued to anger the Democratic leadership by criticizing her party on cable news and conservative television shows.

“Every time I’m on any channel, including today, I give a voice to the 60,000 people I represent,” she said. “I am giving a voice to the 5,700 people who decided to take advantage of the school choices last year. I only give them one vote because otherwise they have no vote. And if we went ahead without even talking about it, you’d think people wouldn’t support it. The communities support it, the parents support it.”

LaQuana “LA PINK” Alexander said she was among the supporters of the bill. Alexander is president of Street Groomers, a community volunteer group, and her work includes mentoring students at a greater Atlanta school that she described as “failing.”

“The children I look after in the area cannot read and cannot go to another school,” she said. “One of my mentees is doing very well, she wants to go to another school because the school is failing, but she can’t go to another school because of the district she lives in.”

“These kids should have a choice, and taking that choice away from them is like telling them you don’t want them to succeed, and that’s not fair.”

Alexander said she came to support vouchers after seeing students at her local school struggling to learn and that many parents have told her they also support the idea.

Chris Daniel, a father of two who works for the AFL-CIO union, told Mainor he worked at an Atlanta middle school and didn’t think coupons would solve anything.

“The solution wasn’t to take the money away from the school. The solution was more based around this school and this community,” he said. “I think that’s where we start. It’s not about taking those dollars from the school and sending them away. Let’s lean on these schools.”