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What $6,000 private school vouchers could mean for parents, public school systems
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Gainesville High teacher Jason Nierenhausen leads a class Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, through the names of bones in the human skeletal system. - photo by Scott Rogers

Many families could get $6,000 vouchers to send their kids to private school under bills being considered in the legislature, which could in turn cost public schools millions in state funding.

What’s in the bills

A family who earns less than four times the federal poverty limit could qualify for the voucher, meaning, a child from a family of four making under $111,000 per year would be eligible. In last year’s version of the bill, a family of four making more than $53,000 a year would not qualify. 

Students could also qualify if they did not “receive 100 percent of instruction in person for at least one semester.” Also eligible would be children adopted from foster care, children of an active-duty military member and children with special educational needs. 

The $6,000 would be diverted from the state funds of that child’s public school district. Parents could use the money for tuition, textbooks, tutoring, transportation, computers and even a licensed physician or therapist. 

The bills also would establish a committee to review qualified expenses. 

The House Education Committee on Feb. 1 passed a revised version of House Bill 60, while a broader version of the same bill, HB 999, is awaiting a full committee vote. 

Georgia now has two voucher programs, one for special needs students attending private schools and another that provides state income tax credits to those who donate to private school scholarship funds. 

What stakeholders are saying about it

The superintendents for Gainesville and Hall County public school systems oppose the bills. 

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he is a “staunch supporter” of school choice, but he considers himself a pragmatist, describing the legislation as a “win-lose” game that drafts public schools to the losing team. 

“If people truly believe there are better options out there to educate the populace, then pay for them,” he said. “Show us how you're going to pay for them, and let's not pretend we're not taking money away from the existing system.” 

Proponents say public schools benefit because they no longer need to spend money to educate those students who choose private school. 

One leader at Lanier Christian Academy, a faith-based school in Flowery Branch, called it a win-win.

“They would get to keep the federal and the local money to educate the kids that stayed,” David Roberts, director of institutional advancement at Lanier Christian, said. “So, in essence it’s increasing the quality of those kids’ education because they don't have the cost of educating the kid that left.”

Rep. Timothy Barr, R-Lawrenceville, co-sponsor of HB 999 echoed those sentiments.

“So I would say they have a net increase in their dollars because they don’t have a child in that seat,” Barr said.

Critics say that argument is based on a flawed understanding of public school costs. 

“You can't turn down the heat in the building by 40 students,” said Stephen Owens, a K-12 policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. 

Schofield made the same point. 

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Gainesville High teacher Jason Nierenhausen uses a model of a human skeleton Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, as students learn the names of human skeletal system bones. - photo by Scott Rogers

“Whenever you take money away from a public school system, our costs don't go down,” he said. “You’ve got the same number of buses running, you have the same number of square feet that you're maintaining, you have the same number of employees. And it sounds really good because people say, ‘Well, you won't have to educate those kids.’ Yeah, you don't have to educate them, but you don't lose any expenses.” 

And in many cases, opponents say, the $6,000 voucher would exceed the per student funding a school system receives. 

“The calculation that’s in both of these bills … would actually provide you more money than a lot of these kids are allocated from the state,” Owens said. “A general education high school student is not getting $6,000 per year, but they're guaranteed that in this bill.”

In Gainesville, for instance, each student is allotted only $4,843 in state funds on average. 

“It’s not an even trade,” said Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams. “That is already taking more from the district than what we earn.” 

Harriette Taylor, a mother in Gainesville whose daughter has attended both public and private schools, said she opposes the privatization of public school funds. 

“If you choose private school, you should be willing to pay for it,” she said. “It would set a very bad precedent if we started using our tax dollars to go to private schools.” 

Her daughter spent two years at Lakeview Academy, a private school in Gainesville, before transferring back into public school. 

How much money could public schools lose?

In the first year, HB 60 would cover about 4,000 students statewide at a cost of about $24 million. The enrollment limit would start at 0.25% and increase by the same amount each year until it reached 2.5%. In a decade, 40,000 children would be covered at a cost of nearly a quarter-billion dollars. 

Of students living in a school district, only 0.5% could participate in the voucher program in the first year. That would increase each year up to a final 4%.

With about 8,000 students, Gainesville could see almost a quarter-million slashed from its state funding in the first year and nearly $2 million in a decade. Hall’s 27,000 students could ultimately lose out on nearly $6.5 million in funding. These figures are rough estimates and based on the assumption that the maximum number of students would transfer to private schools. 

State funding accounts for 43% of Hall’s $364.4 million budget, or about $156.7 million. Gainesville City Schools receives $39.4 million in state funding, with a total budget of $74.3 million. 

Schofield said he is not especially concerned about the potential loss in state funding for Hall, but he feels for poorer school systems to the south with much leaner budgets. 

“I’ve worked in those kinds of school districts that have trouble finding money to wax the floors and get tires for the school buses,” he said. “I mean, every $1,000 counts. And those are the districts I really feel for are the districts that already are struggling to make it, and then we're gonna siphon off just a little more.” 

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Gainesville High students take notes Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022, as they learn about the human skeletal system in teacher Jason Nierenhausen's class. - photo by Scott Rogers
Who could benefit?

Opponents say the $6,000 voucher isn’t enough to cover tuition at most private schools, meaning it would function as a state subsidy for more affluent families who can already afford private schooling. 

“The ones who would benefit from it are the ones who can probably already afford it,” said Lisa Harris, a retired Hall County teacher who spent nearly 20 years in the district. For less well-to-do parents, she said, “it’s like giving a discount on something you can't afford anyway.” 

She believes federal overreach, especially standardized testing, has resulted in many students getting a subpar education. As such, she generally supports school choice. But she said she would probably oppose the legislation in its current form, worried in part that slashes to state funding could result in lower teacher pay and more crowded classrooms.

Leigh Wood, a mother in Clarkesville, said she sees both sides of the issue. She has two children who she says are thriving in the public school system. But her middle son, who is on the autism spectrum, benefited from the special needs voucher and flourished after transferring in fifth grade to Faith Christian Academy, a small private school in Gainesville, making honor rolls and winning awards. 

“He needed a smaller classroom environment,” she said. 

She ultimately supports the legislation because it would provide more options for parents to choose a school that best fits their child’s needs. 

“We want to give parents the flexibility to be able to educate their children in the best way possible,” Barr said. “I think giving them the flexibility to use state dollars that are currently going to their children's education is in the best interest of the kids. Parents know what environment their children can learn in.” 

Standards and regulations for public vs. private schools 

But some worry about a lack of state and federal protections for students who opt for private schooling. 

“Once the funds move from the public school system, the private entity is not held to the same standard as public schools,” Williams wrote in a statement. “If we are held to certain accountability structures, then it is only fair to expect the same since the funds would follow the student. Whether it’s assessment or rights to services, we should all play on the same field.” 

In a letter to the House Education Committee, the Georgia Education Coalition, of which Gainesville City Schools is a part, wrote: “The programs proposed by House Bill 60 and House Bill 999 chip away at the ability of public schools to fulfill their responsibilities to all Georgians and threaten to send Georgia students and tax dollars into a black hole where they are likely to be lost forever.”

Owens said such legislation may be “making the world more dangerous for these children,” saying private schools are allowed to discriminate based on income, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, language and so on. Additionally, private school teachers are not required to be accredited or have a four-year college degree. “This feels more like propping up private schools than actually empowering parents,” he said. 

How can parents spend the money and who keeps tabs?

A “parent review committee” for how the $6,000 vouchers are spent would be made up of eight parents with children in the private school system. 

The Student Finance Commission, charged with overseeing the program, could defer to the parents in deciding whether an expense is legitimate. 

Proponents say parents are in the best position to make those decisions, while opponents say that it creates a conflict of interest and increases the possibility of fraud.

When asked how they will ensure the funds are being used for “qualified education expenses,” Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville and chair of the House Education Committee, said items and services must be purchased through vendors that have been pre-approved by the Student Finance Commission. 

The parent review committee, Dubnik said, would “review any and every request for reimbursement.”

Beyond school choice, proponents of vouchers argue they improve measures of student achievement, such as test scores and graduation rates. 

Owens said the research is “mixed.” 

“You would find some that have done really well,” he said, “and then you'll find some that show kids do demonstrably worse. And a lot of the studies over the last few years have shown either no impact or a negative impact on kids.” 

Barr pointed to Arizona’s voucher program as an example of greater student success. 

State auditors found that Arizona’s program was ripe for fraud, with parents spending $700,000 to buy things like shoes and beauty supplies.

When asked if that is a concern in Georgia, Barr said: “There will be audits and there will be guardrails in place to make sure that those situations do not happen here.” 

The Student Finance Commission would be required to conduct a random audit at least once per year.