A Senate bill sponsored in part by a Forsyth County legislator could help alleviate the problem of failing schools in the state.
Senate Bill 68, which is backed by Sen. Michael Williams, whose District 27 spans much of Forsyth County, is looking to establish an “individual student education account program” for Georgia students to attend private schools across the state.
The account is defined in the bill as a “consumer driven savings account … composed of state funds accrued on behalf of an eligible student and which may be used for qualifying educational expenses, including future postsecondary education expenses.”
The money would come from existing taxpayer dollars – taxes all Georgia residents pay that go to the public school system.
“The Department [of Revenue] shall deposit into an account an amount equivalent to the costs of the educational program that would have been provided for such student as calculated under Code Section 20-2-161 if he or she were enrolled in and attending school in the resident school system,” the bill reads. “The amount deposited shall not include any federal funds.”
Williams said the bill is intended to help students who attend failing schools.
“In Georgia, there are about 60,000 to 70,000 students that are forced to go to failing schools,” he said. “The governor put out Opportunity School District; it failed at the ballots because people did not want to lose local control. But what’s the most local of all control? That’s parental control.
“We need to put our parents in the driver’s seat for our children’s education, especially their child’s education, and this is just one step closer to doing that. The counties still keep the money they raise for school, but the portion they would receive from the state, the parent is able to decide where that money goes.”
The money could only be spent on “qualifying education expenses,” the bill says.
Qualifying expenses include: tuition and fees at a participating school; textbooks required by a participating school; payment for private tutoring; payment for purchase of curriculum materials; tuition or fees for a non-public online learning program; “contracted educational services by a public school or local school system, including courses, provided, however, that this shall not be construed to equate to enrollment in a public school for purposes of eligibility for the program;” fees for national tests, such as AP tests or similar exams; and any exams related to college or university admission, such as the SAT or ACT.
Random audits of the student account would be required annually, with the Georgia Department of Revenue also being given the power to conduct audits at any time.
Students participating in the program would be required to take a national or state test annually to “measure learning gains and provide for value added assessments in grades and subjects that are administered to students in public schools in this state.”
Some have expressed opposition to the bill, raising concerns the money would go unchecked.
Hank Sullivan, a Forsyth County resident, said he worries private schools would adopt a “teach to the test” attitude.
“While that [testing] provision does not strictly mean that the school must teach according to Common Core Standards, because the assessment tests themselves are designed in tandem with Common Core, for students to perform well on the tests, and for all practical purposes, these private schools would have to adopt Common Core standards,” he said. “SB 68 is an obvious attempt to lure the one remaining redoubt against Common Core to drop its protections against the corporatization of education, in exchange for tax dollars.”
Sullivan said he takes issue with the added layer of government he feels this would create.
“If the goal is charity and equity across the state of Georgia, then why do we have to increase the size of government in order to redistribute the tax dollars?” he asked. “This would expand size and scope of government because now our tax dollars would have to be redistributed.”
Williams said this would not be the case.
“I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say it promulgates Common Core,” he said. “The fear is the testing would control the curriculum and you would have a trickle-down effect, which I don’t buy.
[This bill] is to put parents back in control of the education of their child … I don’t know what would be more important than that.”