Parents could use funds appropriated for public schools to pay private school tuition, bill says

Teacher groups condemned the proposal immediately, but conservative groups hailed it as a way to give parents more choice about the education of their children. The issue is certain to trigger prolonged debate during the remaining 30 days of the legislative session.

Florida and Arizona have enacted similar laws in recent years.

Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, sponsored the bill, along with about three-dozen cosponsors so far, including one Democrat and a handful of committee chairmen. To address concerns that most good students will flee public schools leaving only those who are struggling, the bill limits participation at about 8,500 students the first year and 17,000 the second.

“So any concern of a mass exodus, we don’t see that happening,” he said. “We put the cap in there to give people more comfort.”

Teacher groups did raise concerns that the bill would draw financial resources from public schools. Even though the students who leave would no longer put demands on the system, part of the state money earmarked for them covers part of the overhead expenses like libraries, cafeterias and administration.

They said issuing payment vouchers for tuition would be destructive.

“We are opposed to vouchers that would drain funding away from an already strapped K-12 public school system,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest teacher group.

The president of the Georgia Association of Educators, Sid Chapman, took the same position.

“It is clear that using the public’s dollars to fund private school education for a few is bad public policy and essentially robs the public of its ability to decide where it spends its dollars,” he said.

Despite the united opposition of education groups, ordinary Georgians like the idea, according to Hamilton. He said he will soon release a poll showing the vast majority of parents of all races and regions of the state favor his proposal, which he terms education savings accounts.

That’s because parents who do not use all of their allotted funds each year can save them to pay for college. If they don’t use any for four years, the money returns to the state.

The money can only be used at accredited private schools or for tutoring, therapy and other approved uses. It’s only available to students who are already enrolled in a public school or eligible to begin attending based on their age. Regular audits will police abuse.

Hamilton, chairman of the Industry and Labor Committee, said the bill has a good chance of passing.

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