Georgia House panel revives education savings accounts bill

ATLANTA (AP) — A bill letting parents use state dollars toward private school tuition or other education expenses could receive a House floor vote as soon as Wednesday after a last-minute jumpstart from a key tax policy committee.

The proposal from Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, would allow parents to set up an “education savings account” and sweep the state’s share of money for that student into it – about $4,400 using this year’s figures. Federal and local dollars would stay with the public school district.

Hamilton said the bill lets parents choose the best strategy for their child, whether that’s a private school, additional tutoring programs or home schooling. Other supporters back it as a way to customize education for kids with disabilities, chronic illnesses or students who have been bullied.

“Sometimes parents know the best for their children, and this is simply giving them a pathway if they want to exercise that,” Hamilton said this week.

The bill got a hearing but no vote in the House’s Education committee. The House Ways and Means committee, which typically handles tax policy, took it up this week.

Friday is a key deadline for lawmakers. Bills must pass their chamber of origin by then to maintain a chance at becoming law.

Arizona and Florida have instituted similar programs, and lawmakers in a dozen states including Georgia are debating legislation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some opponents consider `ESA’ programs an end-run around state constitutions that prevent public funds from being spent on religious schools.

In Georgia, the state’s School Board Association and other education stakeholders have described Hamilton’s bill as a voucher under another name. At a February hearing, several speakers representing teachers, school boards and superintendents urged lawmakers to turn the issue over to an education reform commission formed by Gov. Nathan Deal rather than moving ahead.

Rep. Mickey Stephens, a Savannah Democrat and retired teacher who sits on the Ways and Means committee, this week called the proposal “dressing up a voucher and making it look like a scholarship.”

“If you can afford to send your kids to private school, you don’t need a voucher,” he said.

Georgia has a tuition tax credit program, which lets individuals get a credit for donating toward private school scholarships managed by nonprofit providers, and a special needs scholarship for students with disabilities or other eligibility requirements.

Hamilton’s bill disqualifies students beginning kindergarten or first grade that year from participating, an attempt to address concerns that the state would subsidize private or home school for parents who never intended to use public schools. Many other details would be determined by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, an agency focused on student testing and performance.

Students would have to attend public schools for at least a year to be eligible for an account. The bill caps participation at about 8,500 students statewide in the 2015-2016 school year and 17,000 additional students the following year. All caps would end in the third year.

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