Ross Williams, Georgia Recorder
January 12, 2024
Gov. Brian Kemp gave a full-throated shoutout to school vouchers in a major speech Thursday, boosting the odds of action on the controversial measure.
“As a small business owner for almost 40 years now, I believe – like many of you – that competition and the free market drive innovation and, at the end of the day, result in a better product for the consumer,” Kemp said. “When it comes to education, the same principles hold true.”
School vouchers give what would be publicly shared money to parents to withdraw their children from public school and send them to private school or homeschool them.
Proponents say because the amount of money sent to participating parents equals the state’s portion of the cost to educate the child and the amount of local tax dollars schools receive does not change, public schools break even or benefit when a child uses such a program.
Opponents say that’s not the case, and vouchers simply funnel cash from public schools to private institutions with fewer accountability requirements. That’s because they say many education costs are fixed, such as teacher salaries, building maintenance and transportation, so having one less student to care for does not reduce these costs proportionally.
A voucher bill passed the Senate last year but faltered in the House at the last minute when a handful of Republicans joined nearly all Democrats in opposing it. Kemp’s explicit endorsement during his annual State of the State Address puts additional pressure on those GOP holdouts to get in line after years of disappointment for conservative education activists.
“This week, as we begin the second year of another biennial of the General Assembly, I believe we have run out of ‘next years,’ he said. “I firmly believe we can take an all-of-the-above approach to education… whether it’s public, private, homeschooling, charter, or otherwise.”
Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who has listed vouchers as a top priority, praised the governor’s words.
“I am especially thankful for the Governor’s support of school choice,” Jones said in a statement. “The Senate and I are leading this initiative because we are committed to supporting parents and giving them the right to choose what is best for their children.”
State School Superintendent Richard Woods was less effusive.
Speaking to the Recorder after the speech, Woods had kind words for most of Kemp’s planned education agenda – including raises for teachers and other state employees, $205 million in state funds to help districts with transportation, $104 million to bolster safety measures and funding for new literacy training.
When it comes to vouchers, he said he’ll reserve judgment until he sees the final proposal, but he’ll have questions for lawmakers about public school funding.
“Right now it’s just unknown,” he said. “I’ve got to have more specifics that come out of that bill. I think the old adage, ‘we’ve got to pass it to find out what’s in it,’ that’s bad government in my assertion. So I think that we’ll just have to look at that bill, but as of now, I do have concerns.”
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators and a teacher, said the Georgia constitution requires the state to provide an adequate public education, and expanding vouchers would not serve that duty.
“It also concerned me that the governor used the business model to describe public education,” she said. “As an educator, I do not have a product. I have students that I am working for them to be the very best they can be. We do not have consumers. If he is referring to our parents in that message, parents are our partners in education, not consumers.”
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