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Private-school Vouchers Are Now The Law in Georgia

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Gov. Brian Kemp signed a private-school vouchers bill Tuesday, culminating a fight Republicans have waged for years to give students in low-performing schools another option.

Senate Bill 233, which the GOP-controlled General Assembly passed last month largely along party lines, will offer vouchers worth up to $6,500 to parents of children enrolled in the bottom 25% of lowest-performing public schools who wish to send their kids to a private school.

“It’s not the government’s role to dictate to families the best choices for their child,” Kemp said during a bill signing ceremony across the street from the state Capitol. “This bill breaks down barriers and opens doors for all students to get the start they need.”

“We refuse to keep our kids trapped in failing schools any longer,” added Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns, R-Newington.

While the bill originated in the state Senate, the House added a number of changes to the measure aimed at addressing concerns about its potential financial impact.

The legislation prohibits spending more than 1% of Georgia’s Quality Basic Education (QBE) fund on vouchers, a cap that is currently set at $140 million a year. It also limits the vouchers to students in families earning no more than 400% of the federal poverty limit – currently $120,000 a year for a family of four.

But opponents argued the bill will divert money from public schools while not truly serving the needs of students from low-income families.

“The amount of the voucher, $6,500, is not nearly enough to pay for most private schools, for which tuition may be as high as $50,000,” said Lisa Morgan, a kindergarten teacher and president of the Georgia Association of Educators. “Vouchers are not a lifeline for working families. They are a handout to upper class parents paid for by the working class.”

“Research shows that vouchers are used overwhelmingly by wealthier Georgia metro counties but not by rural areas – likely because, in many cases, private schooling options are unavailable,” added David Schaefer, vice president of research and policy for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, an Atlanta-based progressive think tank.

Kemp refuted arguments that vouchers will reduce funding for public schools by pointing to Georgia’s record spending on K-12 education this year. The governor’s budget also fully covers tuition for HOPE scholars and raises teacher pay, he said.

Kemp also signed a half dozen other education-related bills during Tuesday’s ceremony, including legislation aimed at protecting teenagers from cyberbullying and other negative effects of social media. The measure was a priority of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who presides over the state Senate.

Senate Bill 351 requires social media companies to take concrete steps to verify the age of their users. It also instructs the Georgia Department of Education to develop and periodically update programs to educate students to use social media safely.

Local school systems will have to adopt, implement, and enforce social media policies and submit them to the state Board of Education for review. Districts that fail to comply would be subject to losing state funds.

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