By Steve Smith
The push to expand vouchers has reached an unprecedented level in Georgia, with continued efforts to divert more public funds to private schools. I am disappointed, but not surprised, to see elected officials using the pandemic to further their agenda to weaken public education in our great state.
Both House Bill 60 and Senate Bill 47 allow parents to take state funding for their children and apply that towards private school tuition in the form of a voucher. Similarly, there is a movement to allow parents to put those funds in an Education Savings Account (ESA) for educational purposes.
Advocates of these measures say they will help students improve their futures. But as a voucher typically covers, at best, half the cost of private school tuition, families must have greater means to afford the remaining expenses. It’s clear low-income families and students in rural areas without access to these schools are not the target of vouchers.
Voucher proponents argue that allowing state funds to follow children to private schools should not affect public schools. However, fixed costs like heating and student transportation remain the same. That loss in funding will disproportionately harm schools that rely more on state funds.
Private schools are not required to undergo audits, adhere to a myriad of state and federal laws, or receive accreditation from AdvancEd. We regularly tell our legislators and stakeholders that we will gladly compete with any private school, charter school, or virtual school as long as we have a level playing field. Our small district with only 2,570 students must complete the same reports and adhere to the same rules as Gwinnett County Schools and its 186,993 students due to federal requirements that private schools are not subject to.
Some legislators also remark that school systems are suddenly flush with cash and have excessive reserves. I am grateful that Gov. Kemp and the Georgia Legislature approved the Fiscal Year 2021 Amended Budget, which restored 60 percent of the budget cuts to public schools initially proposed. But this budget and next year’s proposed budget still underfund school districts statewide.
Many districts suffered tremendously during the Great Recession, and as a result, began building reserves to avoid future layoffs and furloughs. Now these districts, previously criticized for failing to have adequate savings, are chastised for building reserves to weather future downturns.
Some of us have amassed what may appear to be excessive reserves, including my district. However, we are undergoing a large building project that we can only afford once a decade, and we will use a portion of those reserves to cover what debt, state, and ESPLOST do not cover. Seeing a high reserve balance in the summer and saying that schools have plenty of funding is the same as seeing a worker’s paycheck on payday and assuming that they have plenty of savings--it lacks appropriate context.
want the public and our legislators to know that any attempt to move money from public schools is an affront to parents and stakeholders who support public education.
To attempt to move these funds at a time when the state is not even fully funding public education is an insult. To grant anyone state funds without adequate accountability is reckless, and as a Georgia taxpayer, I consider the effort to approach political malpractice.
While I maintain that we in more rural school districts do the most with the least, our story is not unique. Every single day in public schools across Georgia, you will find that same devotion to excellence.
I strongly urge every taxpayer to contact their legislator and oppose House Bill 60, Senate Bill 47, and ESAs that lack accountability measures all while public education remains underfunded. A strong public education system is vital to our great state’s continued growth and prosperity. Let’s all actively oppose efforts to weaken or dismantle public education in Georgia.
Dr. Steve J. Smith is in his sixth year as superintendent of Bleckley County Schools after serving six years in that capacity at Wilcox County Schools. Dr. Smith was named one of four finalists for Georgia Superintendent of the Year by the Georgia School Superintendents Association (GSSA) in 2020.