This story also appeared in Georgia Recorder

A scaled-back version of Woodstock Republican state Rep. Wes Cantrell’s school voucher bill narrowly passed the House Education committee Thursday despite resistance from Democrats and representatives of Georgia teacher groups.

The bill, which passed out of committee 12-10, would create an education savings account using state money, which participating families could tap for private school tuition, home schooling or other educational expenses. At first the program’s cost to the state treasury would be $25 million, and it could grow to $250 million as more students are added.

School vouchers are a recurring lightning rod for debate in the Legislature in Georgia. Opponents say they transfer state money from public schools and send it to private schools, which are not accountable to taxpayers. Supporters say they allow parents to get their children out of schools that are not serving them well.

“What this is about is helping the kids who are less fortunate,” Cantrell said. “They’re trapped in a cycle of poverty and an education strategy that’s not working for them for whatever reason, and it’s giving them a simple opportunity to have an option.”

Students from families making less than 200% of the federal poverty level – about $53,000 for a family of four – would be the first to receive eligibility, along with military families, students with disabilities and children in foster care.

Students in school districts that do not have an option for 100% in-person learning for at least a semester would be eligible for any slots that remain after the first group.

The bill proposes an eligibility cap of .25% of the state’s public school students for the first year, adding another quarter percent each year with a cap of 2.5%, or about 43,000 students based on current enrollment. A previous version of the bill allowed twice as many students.

With an average scholarship amount of $5,700, that would equal about $25 million in state money the first year, growing to $250 million per year when the plan reaches its limit.

School districts where students accept these vouchers could actually see more money overall, said Acworth Republican Rep. Ed Setzler. While state money would go to the private school, the share of funding from local taxes would remain in the district.

“If students in your district use this program, this program actually lines the pockets of your district,” he said. “This program actually increases the per-pupil funding of the kids in your district who do not take this program.”

Mike McGowan, chief of staff at Cherokee County Schools, which is in Cantrell’s district, disagreed. Fewer students does not necessarily mean lower costs, he said.

“If there’s not an equivalent reduction in cost of services, then there is pressure on your local funding as it relates to how you’re going to provide either the services or recoup the money or raise taxes or what have you.”

The bill would still need be approved by the full House. 

Georgia now has two voucher programs, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program and the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit.

State Sen. Steve Gooch, a Republican from Dahlonega, has introduced a Senate bill that aims to expand the Special Needs Scholarship to make more students eligible.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal.Williams' reporting took him from City Hall to homeless camps, from the offices of business...