Originally created 04/18/99

Voucher proposals get boost

ATLANTA -- While the Bush brothers are trying to drive voucher bills through legislatures in Florida and Texas, the idea of providing publicly funded private school scholarships to poor students has been stuck in park for years in Georgia.

Conservatives have tried to resurrect 1961 segregation-era statutes, help inner-city black parents file a lawsuit, and, in their latest bid, they invoked the sacred name of the HOPE scholarship to try to jump-start the private school voucher movement in Georgia.

Now they have a governor bent on reforming education and willing to look at everything and anything to do it.

"Everything is on the table," Gov. Roy Barnes said when asked about vouchers.

Mr. Barnes' support, in the face of strong opposition from education groups and Democratic legislators who control the General Assembly, is a must for voucher supporters as long as Republicans are in a minority.

"It is clear without his support, this is not going to happen," said Sen. Clay Land, R-Columbus, sponsor of the Early HOPE Scholarship legislation that stalled in the Senate Education Committee during the 1999 General Assembly session. "I'm hopeful he is open-minded on the issue and that we can partner with him to get it passed."

Essie Johnson, an English teacher at Beach High School in Savannah and president of the Georgia Association of Educators, is convinced Georgians remain opposed to using tax money to pay private school tuition.

"I don't think it's catching on here in our state because we have a strong belief in public education," Ms. Johnson said. "We believe in public schools."

Conservatives have argued for years that the government should help parents with children in poor-performing public systems pay private school tuition.

The idea has been pushed under the moniker of "school choice," and supporters have elicited the backing of inner-city parents to show vouchers wouldn't strictly go to rich families.

In Georgia, some lawmakers tried to resuscitate a 1961 state law that was passed to help white children escape desegregated schools. A lawsuit to re-institute those vouchers failed.

However, voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have reignited efforts in recent years to provide children a way out of bad schools.

The Bush governors, Jeb in Florida and George W. in Texas, are backing efforts to start voucher programs in their states.

Arizona has set up state tax credits for contributions to scholarship programs that help pay for private and religious school tuition.

New Mexico's Republican governor is battling his Democrat-led legislature over private school vouchers. In all, at least 15 states are debating the issue this year.

In Georgia, Mr. Land is hoping the idea will at least be considered by an education review commission Mr. Barnes plans on chairing this summer and fall.

The commission will make recommendations for legislation Mr. Barnes is expected to carry during the 2000 General Assembly session.

Mr. Land's bill would apply only to students in schools the state designates as falling below minimum standards and those students whose parents earn no more than twice the federal poverty level.

For a family of four, that would be about $33,000.

The voucher would amount to 90 percent of the state per pupil expenditure the student's public school receives. On average, Mr. Land said, that would mean $3,300 to $3,500 would go toward a student's private school tuition.

Mr. Land used the HOPE name because of the overwhelming popularity of the college scholarship program. The difference is the HOPE college scholarship is funded with lottery proceeds; Mr. Land's vouchers would come out of the state treasury.

That concerns educators, who say the public school system cannot afford to lose state funding.

The plan faces two major hurdles. First, the state would have to set up an accountability program to rate schools so it could determine which ones are not meeting minimum standards.

Mr. Barnes' commission is expected to consider creating such a program. Using proposed legislation setting up accountability standards, the Council for School Performance found this year that more than 90 schools had consistently low performance.

Developing such a rating system will be politically risky because no school officials want to see their campuses make the list.

"The most resistance I have received is not based on people being opposed to vouchers per se, but has to do with educators who are vehemently opposed to labeling schools as failing schools," Mr. Land said.

Even if accountability programs are implemented, the second hurdle, convincing lawmakers to use tax money to provide children with private school scholarships, will be difficult to clear.

Mr. Barnes' predecessor, Gov. Zell Miller, opposed private school vouchers during his tenure.

State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, a Republican, sided with Mr. Miller. Most of the leading state education groups detest the idea.

"Those kinds of initiatives destroy public education," Ms. Johnson said. "It's just another way of widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots."

However, Jim Kelly, president of the Georgia Association of Charter Schools, said the state may face a legal challenge if it doesn't provide some kind of outlet for students stuck in poor-performing schools.

"The state of Georgia has got some liability there because it is required to provide adequate education for parents," Mr. Kelly said. "This is a powder keg."

Mr. Land noted the state has already crossed over the line of using public money for private schools. For instance, private college students are eligible for HOPE scholarships.

Four-year-olds attend pre-kindergarten classes at private day-care centers. State-funded after-school programs are housed in church facilities.

"Anybody who doesn't like the idea can invent reasons to oppose it," Mr. Land said. "The underlying opposition to this is it is going to put some school systems in the position of competing for students. They are no longer going to have a monopoly.

"My main impetus for this is I think one of our main problems in education is we are not, for whatever reason, reaching low-income students. I think we ought to give parents of those students, if they are in schools not meeting minimum standards, an opportunity to give them more choice."

Mr. Land's two children attend private schools.

"In this state, there are people that have choices in the education of their children," he said. "But the choices are only for people who can afford to pay the property taxes for public schools and the private school tuition."

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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