For the first time in several years, a standalone measure to expand school choice was considered on the floor of the Georgia Senate. It went down in flames, but the debate and vote on the bill is worth examining.
The measure was an amendment to House Bill 338, the latest initiative to address Georgia’s failing schools. The bill originally included a choice provision for students in those schools, but it was removed due to a lack of consensus. On Friday, senators faced an amendment to HB 338 that would have created an education savings account for about 4,000 students, with preference given to students in failing schools or who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The amendment failed, 14-38. Among Republicans, the vote was 14-22.
I’ve written before about the opinion polls showing a large majority of Republican voters in Georgia (and to a lesser extent, non-Republicans) favor school choice, including measures such as ESAs. So why did the amendment fail Friday?
Some senators objected to the ESA measure being attached to this particular bill: Sens. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, and Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said as much from the floor. But the obvious response is: If not now, when?
It’s worth recounting some history here. In 2010 and 2011, then-Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a staunch advocate of school choice, authored bills to expand the state’s special-needs scholarship program to include kids in foster or military families. Neither time was there enough support for Rogers even to bring the bill up for a vote; he didn’t have the votes.
It’s gotten worse since then. Other than the 2012 constitutional amendment to allow for state-chartered schools and a 2013 move to raise the cap on the tax-credit scholarship by $5 million (a bad move in hindsight, given that the trade-off was the removal of an automatic escalator for the cap), school-choice bills have gotten short shrift.
Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Atlanta, who offered Friday’s amendment, has filed an ESA bill each of the last three years. This year, he finally got a hearing for it in the Senate education committee. He still hasn’t gotten a vote on the bill (though there was disagreement on the floor between him and the committee’s chairman, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, as to whether he was offered a vote in committee). He did, however, change his proposal based on the feedback he got on this year’s bill: He capped enrollment at one-quarter of 1 percent of all public-school students (currently about 1.7 million — hence the “about 4,000” figure earlier) and added the preference for students based on means and being zoned for a failing school.
“I’m offering to you a pilot program on this concept,” Hill said. “Let’s see if this works. If it doesn’t work, I’ll be proven wrong … and we can get rid of the program.”
By “works,” Hill meant in part that the program would attract students from low-income families in particular. The usual doubts about the ability of such families to find private schools they could afford, even with an ESA worth the state’s portion of education funding, were raised. They’re the same doubts I shot down in a series of columns in 2015 — and I didn’t get to all of the quality, low-cost private schools I’ve heard about. Nor do the doubters take account of the fact private donations to the tax-credit scholarship program could supplement what low-income families get from ESAs.
Those families, and those observers curious to see if the program can work in Georgia as it already has in other states, will have to wait another year. I wonder: Will all those senators who said they support the idea, and merely objected to the “process” Hill used to get a floor vote for his bill, work to help his bill get through the committee and back to them for a vote next year?
I really, really have to wonder about that.