Georgia House speaker aims to persuade resistant Republicans in voucher push

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns is leaning into the push to pass a voucher plan funding private school tuition and home schooling, looking to change the minds of fellow Republican skeptics.

Burns made what he said was his first-ever appearance at a House Education Committee meeting Wednesday. He urged the panel to advance a voucher plan that's been rolled together with a number of other initiatives, in an apparent attempt to gain support. The committee approved Senate Bill 233 on a party-line vote, setting the stage for a vote on the House floor on Thursday.

“I would like for our House to send a clear signal, we will not let our children continue to be trapped in a failing school, that we’re taking a stand to give the parents of Georgia better options, and we’re unlocking the doors to the future for the children across this state," Burns told committee members.

But for the bill to pass, at least seven of the 89 representatives who voted against a similar plan last year need to change their mind. Particularly, 16 Republicans who opposed last year's bill are being pressed not only by Burns but also by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and conservative groups. The bill would provide $6,500 education savings accounts to students attending public schools that rank in Georgia's bottom 25% for academic achievement.

Kemp on Tuesday repeated his call for a voucher plan to pass this year, after spending a substantial amount of his State of the State address demanding action.

“I will remind people I said there are no more next years," Kemp told reporters Tuesday. "We’ve been patiently awaiting the House’s work.”

No House members have publicly announced that they have changed their positions, but speculation on how the 16 Republican opponents will vote has been intense.

The Georgia effort is part of a nationwide GOP wave favoring education savings accounts following the pandemic and fights over what children should learn in public schools. But school choice hasn’t been a given in all Republican states. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s yearlong voucher push foundered after being sunk by rural GOP opponents. Like in that state, most Republican opponents in Georgia represent rural areas, where public schools are centerpieces of their communities.

The core of Georgia's plan remains the same as last year, but it's been combined with provisions proposed in other bills. Those include writing current teacher pay raises into Georgia's K-12 school funding formula, letting public school prekindergarten programs qualify for state aid to construct and furnish buildings, letting students enroll in other public school districts that will accept them and increasing tax credits for gifts to public schools.

The language on the teacher raises is partly symbolic — lawmakers have been increasing pay using budget bills in recent years.

Supporters argue vouchers for private school tuition, home schooling supplies, therapy, tutoring or even early college courses for high school students will help those in poorly performing schools.

Opponents say the program would divert needed public school funding and subsidize institutions that discriminate against people who don’t share their social and religious views. They also argued that at $6,500, poor recipients wouldn’t get enough to pay private school tuition. Democrats tried unsuccessfully Wednesday to amend the measure to require private schools to accept all applicants, and to require all teachers at participating private schools to be state-certified.

“I’m upset that we can’t create even a bottom-level standard of quality for private schools," said Stephen Owens, the education director at the liberal leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. “Otherwise, this feels overly deferential to private schools, not kids.”

Georgia already gives vouchers for special education students in private schools and $120 million a year in income tax credits for donors to private school scholarship funds.

The new program would be limited to spending 1% of the $13.1 billion that Georgia spends on its school funding formula, or $131 million. Lawmakers would appropriate money for the voucher separately, and not take it directly out of the formula. That could provide more than 20,000 scholarships. Students who could accept them are supposed to have attended an eligible public school for at least two consecutive semesters, or be about to enter kindergarten at an eligible public school.

“We will have people using this voucher who have never attended public school," said Rep. Becky Evans, an Atlanta Democrat opposed to the bill.

Only students from households with incomes of less than four times the federal poverty level would be eligible unless there's more money than demand for scholarships. Four times the federal poverty level is about $100,000 for a family of three.