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Senator's school voucher bill has foes in local education
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A Gainesville state senator said he is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward a school voucher bill introduced Monday in the Georgia Senate.

State Sen. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said Hall County school officials have expressed concern about the bill proposed by state Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah.

"I’ve talked with Will Schofield and Richard Higgins a number of times in the past three years, and they really feel this is detrimental to the public school system," Hawkins said. Schofield is the school superintendent and Higgins is the chairman of the Hall County Board of Education.

"It makes it much harder for them to plan for the number of students they’re going to have in school. They see this as a stumbling block for them," Hawkins said.

Johnson, who is running for lieutenant governor, has been touting the bill since last year.

Under the proposal, any student who has been in the public school system for one year could apply for a $5,000 state voucher for a private school education.

"That makes it revenue neutral," Johnson said. "If we were to provide a voucher for kids already in private school, that’s a bunch of money."

Johnson said the state typically provides $5,000 for each public school student. The local school system provides an additional $5,000 and the federal government provides about $500.

The $5,000 voucher would come from money the state is already providing.

However, the voucher would not pay for most private schools in the state.

A survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Schools showed the median tuition cost for Georgia private schools in the survey was $11,333 a year.

Data provided by Johnson’s office derived from a survey conducted by the Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation placed the average cost at $5,800.

There are 662 private schools statewide of all types, including 14 in Hall County, according to the Center for an Educated Georgia.

Two years ago, Johnson sponsored a bill that became law and created a scholarship program for special needs students who had previously attended public schools.

In the 2007-08 school year, 899 children in Georgia received state-funded educational payments averaging $6,260 each to transfer to private schools. Most of those children were diagnosed with learning disabilities. They included six children from Hall County, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

In the current year, there was a 78 percent spike in the number of children receiving the state funds. There are 1,596 pupils averaging $6,331. Most children with scholarships are in middle grades — fifth, sixth and seventh.

Ava White, who runs a private academy in Gainesville for special needs students, said she now has a waiting list because of the demand.

"We opened two years ago and we had five or six kids," White said. "This year, we have 10."

Johnson said that program has worked and he believes the same would be true for the proposed vouchers.

"If a child in Gainesville goes to private school and takes the $5,000 voucher, that still leaves $5,000 in the Gainesville school system to use for something else," Johnson said. "That’s more money for fewer children."

He said opponents who argue that the plan would take money out of local schools are wrong.

"They aren’t doing their fifth-grade math," Johnson said.

Hawkins said while he is listening to local school officials, he will keep an open mind regarding Johnson’s new bill.

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