Universal school voucher bill fails to pass Georgia Legislature

ATLANTA — A bill that would have made Georgia the first state in the nation with a universal school voucher program has died after education lobbyists mounted a campaign against the measure.

Sen. Eric Johnson, a Savannah Republican, said Thursday he doesn't have the votes to pass the bill, which would have used tax dollars to pay for parents to send their children to any public or private school in the state. The bill would have expanded a two-year-old program that grants such vouchers to special needs students in Georgia.

"I knew this would be a tough fight," Johnson said, standing the floor of the Senate. "My goal is to continue to expand the options for parents to educate their children with their own tax dollars."

Thursday is the deadline by which all bills must pass one of the chambers of the Georgia Legislature to make it to the governor's desk this year. The Senate did not have the voucher bill on its agenda.

Although a bill could be resurrected by being attached to another measure, it is a rare.

The voucher bill, which was expected to set off a contentious debate, passed the Senate Education Committee on Feb. 26 but never made it onto the floor for a vote.

Johnson said he will try again next session, which begins in January.

But he faces an uphill battle with Georgia Democrats and some conservative Republicans, who have said a voucher program only takes money away from low performing schools and provides little oversight of how taxpayer money is being used.

"The majority of legislators didn't want to do something that could have a negative impact on public schools," said Sen. Gail Buckner, a Democrat from Morrow and member of the Senate Education Committee.

Education lobbying groups like the Georgia Association of Educators, the Georgia School Boards Association and the Georgia School Superintendents Association campaigned against the bill with thousands of calls and e-mails to lawmakers. Other groups like the League of Women Voters and the Anti-Defamation League joined in the fight to quash the bill.

Jeff Hubbard, president of GAE, which represent 40,000 educators across the state, said he doubts Johnson will ever get the support he needs to pass a universal voucher bill because of how controversial the programs are. No state has successfully passed one despite several attempts.

"He didn't have the votes this year, and we don't think he will next year," Hubbard said, referring to Johnson.

Lawmakers should work on fixing public education rather than taking tax dollars away from low-performing schools, Hubbard said.

Last year Johnson tried to pass a bill giving vouchers to students who wanted to transfer out of low-performing schools, but the measure failed in the final hours of the legislative session.

Georgia isn't the only state that has tried to implement a universal voucher program.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., have voucher programs for low-income or special-needs students, but none are universal, according to the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Education Reform, which tracks such programs nationally. Utah lawmakers put a universal program on a referendum ballot in 2007, but voters overwhelmingly quashed it.

Under Georgia's special needs voucher program, about 1,600 students are attending 145 private schools this year on vouchers, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The students are receiving $5.6 million in state funding to attend the schools.

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