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Hall superintendent says school voucher bill would face court challenge
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Listen as Tammy Lundsford, president of the East Hall Middle School PTO, comments on a bill that would allow parents of students at schools losing accreditation or labeled a "needs improvement school" for a seventh year to receive a voucher to attend a private school.

A bill now before the state Senate proposes to open the door wider for vouchers in Georgia.

The legislature voted last year to give families of eligible special-needs children the choice to attend another public or an approved private school.

The voucher amount equals the amount of state money the school system received for the student during the previous school year or the private school’s tuition and fees, whichever is less.

State legislators now are considering a bill that would allow students in a school system or school losing accreditation — such as in Clayton County — or labeled a "needs improvement school" for a seventh year to receive a voucher to attend a private school.

The bill would affect East Hall Middle School, which is in its eighth year of needs improvement.

A school attains that label by failing to make "adequate yearly progress" for two consecutive years in the same subject area of the state basic-skills test that pertains to them.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which governs accountability for all public schools, already requires that schools in their first year of needs improvement offer parents the choice of moving to another public school.

Schools in their second year of needs improvement must offer choice plus supplemental services for low-income students.

The bill, which is in committee, says that schools in their sixth year of needs improvement have 30 days after they’re notified of the status by the state Department of Education to share the news with parents.

"Such notice shall include ... options that are available to parents ... if the school remains in such status for one more consecutive year," the bill says.

After the seventh year, parents can request a voucher in an amount equal to "the costs of the educational program that would have been provided for the student" minus federal funding or the private schools’ tuition and fees, whichever is less.

"The funds needed to provide a scholarship shall be subtracted from the allotment payable to the ... school system," the bill says.

Will Schofield, superintendent of the Hall school system, said he believes that if the bill becomes law, "the practice of taking revenue that is collected by a local system and redistributing it to a private entity would face immediate constitutional challenge."

"Furthermore, the desire to legislate massive potential change for 180 school systems due to an individual system’s accreditation situation appears to be a knee-jerk reaction."

Sen. Lee Hawkins, a Republican representing Hall County, said he is concerned about the bill.

"The premise of allowing students to go to schools that are accredited is important, but at the same time I have concerns with the funding for our schools," he said. "I think it’s going to take quite a bit of debate and close scrutiny."

Tammy Lundsford, president of the East Hall Middle School parent-teacher organization, has mixed views on the issue.

She said she is "very pleased" with her child’s school, "but, by the same token, there are times, not necessarily for educational reasons, that I would not mind my children being in a private school setting."

In the meantime, East Hall Middle is taking strides to pull itself out of needs improvement.

Schools must make adequate progress for two consecutive years before shedding the label.

The school began a Saturday school program in November for students with disabilities "to target specific skill deficiencies as identified by previous standardized tests," said principal Kevin Bales.

No Child Left Behind requires all students, as well as certain groups of students based on race and other factors, to meet proficiency standards.

"The school’s needs improvement status is a direct result of the performance of (students with disabilities)," Bales said.

East Hall Middle also has conducted an after-school program for students with disabilities and English language learners.

"The purpose of this particular initiative has been to preview instructional standards in math, reading and English/language arts," Bales said.

Amy Webb, a sixth grade English/language arts teacher, said she particularly is pleased with the school’s after-school program.

"Our students are continuously being reinforced in the Georgia Performance Standards (the state’s curriculum) and the skills they need to help them to pass the CRCT," she said referring to the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, the state’s basic-skills test for elementary and middle school students.

"I must say this is one of the best initiatives I’ve seen."