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School vouchers dominate speech by Senate president pro tem

POSTED: September 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson of Savannah ate lunch with the Habersham Rotary Club and dished about his plan that he said could be "the single best change Georgia can make to improve education."

The topic of private school vouchers dominated his speech to the rotary club Thursday, as about 100 Habersham County residents tuned in.

"It’s a big issue up there," Johnson said. "Georgia really has legitimately moved to the forefront nationally of school choice. ... We’ve tweaked (education) here, and there and we’ve done this and that, and we’ve put a little bit more money in ... and we’re just not getting anywhere."

The Senate president pro tem said he hopes to introduce legislation to the General Assembly in January that, if approved, would allow all children in Georgia public schools a roughly $5,000 voucher to attend a private school, including religious institutions. Students already in private school, as well as undocumented residents, would not be eligible for the vouchers, Johnson said.

Johnson, a lieutenant governor hopeful for 2010, said he’s convinced that competition will do more to improve not just the kids who use vouchers, but public schools, as well.

Johnson said on average, $10,500 is spent on a Georgia child’s education, with $500 coming from the federal government, $5,000 from the state and $5,000 from the local government. He said the average private school tuition is about $5,800 per year.

He proposes that state funds be used to fund private school vouchers and said the approach will leave local funds in the local systems. He said, however, the local public school systems will lose out on state per pupil allotments if individuals transfer to private schools.

"There will be more money for fewer children," he said.

"Studies show that the public schools that are exposed to vouchers improve faster than public schools that don’t," Johnson said. "This is really more about improving public schools than giving vouchers to private schools. ... The fact that a child could leave that school will make (educators) more sensitive to parents and better customer service."

If Johnson’s new voucher plan is passed, it would be the first universal state voucher system in the nation. He admitted the legislation will be "very tough" to get passed.

While Johnson is parading his voucher plan across the state, state schools Superintendent Kathy Cox stands firmly against it.

"Private schools are fine, but if they want to stay private and they don’t want to have the same set of accountability standards as public schools, then we don’t need to be putting public money in them," she said.

Johnson maintains that private schools should not be held to the same curriculums and performance standards as public schools even if vouchers are implemented.

"The only way to provide accountability is to allow the child to be able to move if they’re not happy," he said.

Jan Orzech, mother of two students who attend the Gainesville private school Lakeview Academy, said she supports Johnson’s voucher plan.

"I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for each family to decide that," Orzech said. "I think some kids thrive better in a very small setting. ... It would give a lot of families an opportunity that they wouldn’t normally have."

Orzech said her children attended public schools before they moved to Hall County. She said one of the major advantages of attending private schools is the cutting-edge technology available to children.

Orzech said she would have no problem with children attending Lakeview Academy using private school vouchers. In fact, she said she would welcome the variety.

Lovie Millsap has a son in fourth grade at Centennial Arts Academy, and said he would decline the voucher even if it was offered. Millsap said he is very happy with his son’s public education.

"Wouldn’t trade it for nothin’," he said. "To me, putting your child in a public school better prepares your child for life than private school. It exposes your child to different cultures and how they communicate. A lot of times at private schools, you don’t have that."



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