Lawmakers Push Plan for Third Private School

Voucher Program

Bill Analysis: House Bill 60 (LC 49 0460S)

 

HB 60 Overview (Amended)

The analysis of the original version of HB 60 is included beneath this update.

Georgia lawmakers are considering a bill to create the state’s third private school voucher program, named the “Georgia Educational Scholarships” Act. If approved, House Bill 60 would pull an estimated $422 million in state funds out of public schools and deposit these funds into personal accounts set up for voucher students. These accounts are called education savings accounts (ESAs), and funds can be used for a variety of education expenses. Rep. Wes Cantrell (R-Woodstock) authored the legislation. In the recent past, Cantrell sponsored similar legislation but added a notable change to the current bill: opening the proposed ESA voucher program to students enrolled in school districts that did not provide “100%” face-to-face instruction for a semester during the previous school year. Eligible students also include those who have a Section 504 Plan related to one of 21 conditions or a diagnosis of one of the conditions.

 

The ESA voucher program outlined in HB 60 is a program that offers little benefit for students and undermines public schools. The proposed voucher plan:

 

  • Copies voucher programs that resulted in student learning losses in other states

  • Triggers loss of special needs students’ rights to federally required services

  • Penalizes districts for implementing pandemic health and safety measures

  • Strips public schools of needed funds

  • Has inadequate quality and transparency measures to safeguard public funds

 

There are better strategies lawmakers can pursue to support students, particularly during this challenging period.

 

HB 60: A Closer Look

 

Lawmakers should consider multiple policy concerns regarding HB 60, including its direct impact on students, effects on public schools, and scant safeguards for public funds. (See Appendix A for detailed information about the ESA voucher program’s structure.)

 

Voucher Programs Show Student Learning Loss

 

Recent evaluations of private school voucher programs in Washington D.C., Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana show declines in student learning in math and, in Ohio, reading as well. Earlier studies showed private school vouchers had, at best, an uneven impact on student learning. There is little reason to expect a different outcome in Georgia (see Footnote 1).

 

Special Education Students Lose Guarantee of Services Despite Extra Funding

 

Under HB 60, students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) would receive state dollars their resident school districts would earn to serve them. These students have a disability that interferes with learning and require specialized instructional supports. They receive more state funds than other students due to their greater needs.

 

Despite receiving extra funds for additional services, students with IEPs would be required to waive their right to these services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) if they participate in the voucher program. IDEA ensures that the rights of students with disabilities to fully participate in public education are protected. Students with Section 504 Plans also have federal protection under the Rehabilitation Act. These students have a condition that requires accommodation, such as extra time to complete assignments or physical assistance, but do not require specialized instructional support. They too would be required to waive their right to the assistance outlined in the 504 plans. Students could qualify for an ESA voucher because they have a disability or a condition but move to schools that do not provide services identified in their IEPs or 504 Plans. Parents may not discover this until after they have enrolled their children, as HB 60 does not require participating private schools to inform prospective voucher students and their parents if they do not provide services outlined in IEPs or 504 Plans.

Proposed Voucher Penalizes Districts for Pandemic Safety Measures

Eligibility for HB 60 vouchers includes students enrolled in a public school in districts that do not offer students 100 percent in-person instruction for a semester. This benchmark penalizes districts that move to virtual or hybrid instruction to ensure student and staff health and safety during a public health, weather-related, or other unforeseen emergency.

 

Proposed ESA Voucher Program Strips Public Schools of Needed Funds

 

If approved by lawmakers, HB 60 would pull an estimated $195 million out of schools when fully implemented. (See Appendix B. PAGE believes a fiscal note calculating the cost of HB 60 should be prepared by the Office of Planning and Budget.) This loss comes when public schools are coping with a $383 million cut in Quality Basic Education formula funding in the current school year and an anticipated cut of the same size in the upcoming school year. These cuts come on top of longstanding state funding shortfalls for school counselors and pupil transportation. Districts’ financial squeeze is even tighter as their costs have grown as student academic and mental health needs climb due to the pandemic.

The loss of state funds triggered by the voucher program would not be matched by a comparable drop in districts’ expenses. If 20 students leave a district to take ESA vouchers, districts cannot cut their teachers’ salaries by a proportional amount, nor can they reduce other costs including support services such as counselors and media specialists, transportation, and utilities.

 

Although HB 60 contains a public school enrollment requirement, it lacks a public school attendance requirement for qualifying students. This proposed policy creates opportunities to misuse the program if students enroll in a public school for a few weeks or days to meet eligibility requirements. This could drive up state costs. HB 60’s enrollment requirement should be amended to reflect a public school attendance requirement of at least one school year.  

 

Once students qualify for ESA vouchers under HB 60, they receive it until they graduate, return to public school, or reach 20 or 21 if they have special needs. Changes in their qualifying eligibility—such as increases in family income above 200 percent of the federal poverty line—do not alter their receipt of the voucher. HB 60 should require routine evaluation of student eligibility.  

 

Voucher Plan has Inadequate Quality Safeguards and Gives Parents Little Information

 

The ESA voucher plan outlined in HB 60 falls short of rigorous quality and transparency standards. The most important in-school component of student learning is a skilled teacher. HB 60 does not require teachers at participating private schools to have a bachelor’s degree or a teaching certificate.

 

Parents’ ability to compare prospective private schools with their children’s public school is hampered by the lack of comparable data. The easiest solution is requiring voucher students to take Georgia Milestones, but HB 60 does not do so. The lack of comparable data would also impede lawmakers’ ability to assess the program’s costs and benefits and set clear benchmarks for removing private schools or other service providers that perform poorly, an accountability measure the bill lacks.

 

Other accountability measures in HB 60 are also insufficient. Participating private schools are not required to provide an annual financial audit, unlike public school districts. In addition, a review committee, which makes determinations about allowable expenses and considers appeals from private schools and providers denied approval to participate, is made up of eight parents of participating students appointed by the GSFC executive director. No instructional experts from the public education sector are members of the committee.

 

Recommendations

 

There are multiple strategies lawmakers can pursue that would yield greater benefits for Georgia public school students instead of sending public funds to private schools through a flawed program. Legislators should:

 

  1. Eliminate state austerity cut in full and address ongoing funding gaps including student transportation and school counselors.
     

  2. Implement overdue transparency and accountability measures to Georgia’s existing voucher programs.
     

  3. Identify, implement and fund strategies to help public school students surmount learning and mental health challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic

Appendix A: Structure of HB 60 ESA Voucher Program

 

Students would be eligible for an ESA voucher under HB 60 if they have a parent who currently resides in Georgia and meet one or more of the following criteria:

 

  • A family income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia (see Footnote 2)

  • Been adopted from foster care and was enrolled in a public school in Georgia immediately prior to adoption

  • A parent who is an active duty military service member stationed in Georgia within the previous year and is currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia

  • Has an IEP and is currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia (see Footnote 3)

  • Has a Section 504 plan related to one of the following conditions or has a diagnosis for one of these conditions from a physician or psychologist:
     

    • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

    • Autism spectrum disorder

    • Bipolar disorder

    • Cancer

    • Cerebral palsy

    • Cystic fibrosis

    • Deafness

    • Down syndrome

    • Drug or alcohol abuse

    • Dual sensory impairment

    • Dyslexia

    • Emotional or behavioral disorder

    • Epilepsy

    • Hearing impairment

    • Intellectual disability

    • Muscular dystrophy

    • Specific learning disability

    • Spina bifida

    • Traumatic brain injury

    • Visual impairment

    • Any rare disease identified by the National Institutes of Health’s Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center’s list of rare diseases OR

  • Was enrolled in a public school in the previous year that did not offer 100 percent in-person instruction for a semester.

 

The number of participating students would be capped at a quarter of one percent of the total statewide public school enrollment in year one of the program and expand by a quarter of one percent annually up to two and one-half (2.5) percent. Based on current enrollment data, about 44,000 students could receive an ESA voucher under the two and one-half percent limit (see Footnote 4).

 

The number of participating students from an individual school district is limited to one-half of one percent of the program total in the first year and increase by one-half of one percent in subsequent years up to four percent. Districts with a lower enrollment than the statewide average would have a lower cap: one-fourth of one percent of the program’s total enrollment in the first year with an increase of one-fourth of one percent in subsequent years to a maximum of 2.5 percent.

 

Participating students could continue receiving an ESA voucher until they graduate from high school, turn 20, or, for special education students, turn 21. Students with an IEP or a Section 504 plan would be required to waive their rights to services under federal law.

 

The ESA voucher program would be funded with state money allotted to public schools. Voucher students would receive the amount their school districts would be allocated to serve them minus the local five mill share. The money would be deposited into accounts set up for each student and could be used for one or more of the following:

 

  • Tuition, required fees and textbooks at participating private schools

  • Tuition, required fees and textbooks at a community college or postsecondary institution

  • Tutoring services provided by an educator certified by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission

  • Purchase of a curriculum and supplemental materials

  • Tuition and fees for a nonpublic online learning program or course

  • Services from a physician or licensed therapist including occupational, behavioral, physical or speech-language

  • Fees for the management of account funds

  • Computer or other technological devices for students’ educational needs

  • Transportation to a private school or service provider (see Footnote 5)

 

Unused funds would rollover to subsequent years. If any funds remain after a student graduates from high school, the funds could be used at a postsecondary institution in Georgia.

 

The Georgia Student Finance Commission (GSFC) would operate the program, which it could engage a nonprofit organization to undertake. GSFC’s tasks would include setting standards for participating private schools and service providers. It would also institute a system for paying private schools and service providers, a task it could retain a private management to perform. Up to three percent of the funds diverted to private schools could be used to cover the cost of these administrative functions.

 

A committee of eight parents whose children receive an ESA voucher would be established to review expenditures to determine if they meet program qualifications. Committee members would be appointed by the GSFC executive director and would serve one-year terms. They could be re-appointed for an unlimited number of terms. This committee would also review appeal requests from private schools and service providers denied approval by GSFC to participate in the program.

 

Participating students would take a national norm-reference test identified by the commission or Georgia Milestones annually. Data on student grade level, gender, family income level and race would be collected as well as high school graduation outcomes. The commission would publish an annual report, which would include

  • Number and demographics of participating students and number of schools

  • Student performance on assessments

  • Parent satisfaction

  • Percentage of funds used for each type of qualified expense

  • Fiscal impact

 

The Department of Audits and Accounts would conduct an audit of the program every year.

 

 

Appendix B: HB 60 Cost Estimate

 

The estimated cost of HB 60 is $195 million by year 10 when about 44,000 students would get an ESA voucher. This approximation is based on funding for the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula in the original Fiscal Year 2021 budget and assumes an estimated average per student cost of $4,455.

 

This estimate also assumes that the per student voucher amount does not include indirect instructional costs, nor does it incorporate the existing austerity cut. If indirect instructional costs are included, the cost would rise.

 

A fiscal note on HB 60 should be completed by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) to determine the program’s cost to the state. OPB prepared a fiscal note on a very similar bill, HB 301, during the 2019 session and concluded that the total cost of the ESA voucher program proposed in that bill could be $543 million by its tenth year of operation (see Foonote 6).

Footnote 1:

Dynarski, M., & Nichols, A. (2017, July 13). More findings about school vouchers and test scores, and they are still negative. Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(18). Brookings Institute. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/ccf_20170713_mdynarski_evidence_speaks1.pdf;

Figlio, D. & Karbownik, K. (2016). Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition and Performance Effects. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from https://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/FORDHAM%20Ed%20Choice%20Evaluation%20Report_online%20edition.pdf; Waddington, R.J., & Berends, M. (2018). Impact of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Achievement effects for students in upper elementary and middle school. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(4), 783-808.; Wolfe, P. J., Mills, J. N., Sude, Y., Erickson, H. H., & Lee. M. M. (2019). How has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A. Comprehensive Summary of Effects after Four Years. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform. Retrieved from http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/LSP4-Policy-Brief-SCDP.pdf

Footnote 2:

A family of four whose income was less than $53,000 in 2021 would be eligible for an ESA voucher under the income criteria. (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.) HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2021. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines)

Footnote 3:

Qualifying disabilities include autism; deaf/blind; deaf/hard of hearing; emotional and behavioral disorder; intellectual disability; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; specific learning disability; speech-language impairment; traumatic brain injury; or visual impairment.

Footnote 4:

Georgia Department of Education. (n.d.) State Earnings Sheet for FY 2021. Retrieved from https://financeweb.doe.k12.ga.us/QBEPublicWeb/ReportsMenu.aspx

Footnote 5:

Transportation expenditures would be capped at $500 per year.

Footnote 6:

Griffin, G. & Farr, K. Greg Griffin and Kelly Farr to Brett Harrell, February 28, 2019, Fiscal Note House Bill 301 (LC33 7686). Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. Retrieved from https://opb.georgia.gov/budget-information/fiscal-notes/2019-2020-regular-session

HB 60 Overview (Original)

 

HB 60: A Closer Look

 

Lawmakers should consider multiple policy concerns regarding HB 60, including its direct impact on students, effects on public schools, and scant safeguards for public funds. (See Appendix A for detailed information about the ESA voucher program’s structure.)

 

Voucher Programs Show Student Learning Loss

 

Recent evaluations of private school voucher programs in Washington D.C., Louisiana, Ohio and Indiana show declines in student learning in math and, in Ohio, reading as well. Earlier studies showed private school vouchers had, at best, an uneven impact on student learning. There is little reason to expect a different outcome in Georgia (see footnote 1).

 

Special Education Students Lose Guarantee of Services Despite Extra Funding

 

Under HB 60, students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) would receive state dollars their resident school districts would earn to serve them. These students receive more state funds than other students due to their greater needs.

 

Despite receiving extra funds for additional services, students with IEP’s would be required to waive their right to these services under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) if they participate in the voucher program. IDEA ensures that the rights of students with disabilities to fully participate in public education are protected. Students could qualify for an ESA voucher because they have a disability but move to schools that do not provide services to assist with the disability specified in their IEP. Parents may not discover this until after they have enrolled their children, as HB 60 does not require participating private schools to inform prospective voucher students and their parents if they do not provide services outlined in IEPs.

Proposed Voucher Penalizes Districts for Pandemic Safety Measures

 

Eligibility for HB 60 vouchers includes students enrolled in a public school in districts not currently offering students 100 percent in person instruction. This benchmark penalizes districts that move to virtual or hybrid instruction to ensure student and staff health and safety. It ignores the staffing challenges districts face when teachers and bus drivers are absent due to the virus, leaving too few staff to transport students or operate school buildings. HB 60’s face-to-face instruction benchmark also overlooks the substitute teacher shortage that has pushed districts to hire undergraduates to step in, a shortage exacerbated by state funding for substitutes that has not increased in over 30 years (see footnote 2).

 

The criterium for 100 percent in-person instruction does not consider that districts may shift to virtual instruction in the wake of a weather event or other situation that forces the closure of school buildings. It may also serve as a disincentive for schools to explore new uses of technology such as virtual instruction on educator professional learning days.

 

Proposed ESA Voucher Program Strips Public Schools of Needed Funds

 

If approved by lawmakers, HB 60 would pull an estimated $422 million out of schools when fully implemented. (See Appendix B.) This funding loss comes when public schools are coping with anticipated state funding cuts that top $380 million as well as longstanding state funding shortfalls for school counselors, student transportation and more. Districts’ financial squeeze is even tighter as their costs have grown as student academic and mental health needs climb due to the pandemic.

 

The proposed ESA voucher would also pull more money out of schools than is fair in many instances. Students without an IEP would receive the average statewide amount of state funds per student. Boosted by higher funding levels for special education and other students with greater needs, this amount exceeds what the state sends districts for many students including most middle and high school students. The loss of state funds triggered by the voucher program would not be matched by a comparable drop in districts’ expenses.

 

Voucher Plan has Inadequate Quality Safeguards and Gives Parents Little Information

 

The ESA voucher plan outlined in HB 60 falls short of rigorous quality and transparency standards. The most important in-school component of student learning is a skilled teacher. HB 60 does not require teachers at participating private schools to have a bachelor’s degree or a teaching certificate.

 

HB 60 provides parents with few means to gather information about participating private schools as the schools’ names are hidden. Parents’ ability to compare prospective private schools with their children’s public school is further hampered by the lack of comparable data. Voucher students in HB 60’s ESA voucher program would not be required to take Georgia Milestones. This would also impede lawmakers’ ability to assess the program’s costs and benefits and set clear benchmarks for removing private schools or other service providers that perform poorly, an accountability measure the bill currently lacks.

 

Other accountability measures in HB 60 are also insufficient. No audits are required of participating private schools, and the legislation proposes random annual audits of student accounts, not a systematic examination to ensure full compliance with rules.

 

Recommendations

 

There are multiple strategies lawmakers can pursue that would yield greater benefits for Georgia public school students instead of sending public funds to private schools through a flawed program. Legislators should:

 

  1. Eliminate state austerity cut in full and address ongoing funding gaps including student transportation and school counselors.
     

  2. Implement overdue transparency and accountability measures to Georgia’s existing voucher programs.
     

  3. Identify, implement and fund strategies to help public school students surmount learning and mental health challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic

Appendix A: Structure of HB 60 ESA Voucher Program

 

Students would be eligible for an ESA voucher under HB 60 if they have a parent who currently resides in Georgia and meet one or more of the following criteria:

 

  • A family income below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia (see footnote 3)

  • Been adopted from foster care

  • A parent who is an active duty military service member stationed in Georgia within the previous year

  • A disability and an IEP and currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia (see footnote 4)

  • A documented case of bullying and currently enrolled in a public school in Georgia

  • Was enrolled in a public school in the previous year that did not offer 100 percent in-person instruction.

 

The number of participating students would be capped at half of one percent of the total statewide public school enrollment in year one of the program and expand by half of one percent annually up to five percent. Based on current enrollment data, about 88,000 students could receive an ESA voucher under the five percent limit (see footnote 5).

 

Participating students could continue receiving an ESA voucher until they graduate from high school, turn 20, or, for special education students, turn 21. Special education students with an IEP would also be required to waive their rights to services under IDEA.

 

The ESA voucher program would be funded with state money allotted to public schools. Voucher students with an IEP would receive the amount their school districts would be allocated to serve them. All other voucher students would receive the statewide average per student amount of state funding. The money would be deposited into accounts set up for each student and could be used for one or more of the following:

 

  • Tuition, required fees and textbooks at private schools

  • Tuition, required fees and textbooks at a postsecondary institution

  • Tutoring services provided by an educator certified by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission

  • Purchase of a curriculum and supplemental materials

  • Tuition and fees for a nonpublic online learning program or course

  • Services from a physician or licensed therapist including occupational, behavioral, physical or speech-language

  • Computer or other technological devices for students’ educational needs

  • Transportation to a private school or service provider (see footnote 6)

 

Unused funds would rollover to subsequent years. If any funds remain after a student graduates from high school, the funds  could be used at a postsecondary institution in Georgia.

 

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) would operate the program, which it could engage a nonprofit organization to undertake. GOSA’s tasks would include setting standards for participating private schools and service providers. It would also institute a system for paying private schools and service providers, a task it could retain a private management to perform. Up to three percent of the funds diverted to private schools could be used to cover the cost of these administrative functions.

 

A committee of eight parents whose children receive an ESA voucher would be established to review expenditures to determine if they meet program qualifications. This committee would also review appeal requests from private schools and service providers denied approval by GOSA to participate in the program.

 

Participating students would take a national norm-reference test or Georgia Milestones annually. Aggregate results would be reported as would information on student demographics. Parents of participating students would complete a satisfaction survey.

Appendix B: HB 60 Cost Estimate

 

The estimated cost of HB 60 is $422 million by year 10 when about 88,000 students would get an ESA voucher. This estimate is based on funding for the Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula in the original Fiscal Year 2022 budget, which includes an austerity cut of $950 million. The estimated per student average state funding at this level is $4,794. This amount is lower than it would be if the QBE were fully funded.

 

 

 

 

This estimate also assumes that the per student voucher amount is based only on funds allocated to public school students through the QBE formula, including funding for student transportation, sparsity grants, and nursing services. It does not include state funds for public schools allocated through the Equalization Grant or other state programs. If these funds were included, the cost would rise.

 

A fiscal note on HB 60 should be completed by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) to determine the program’s cost to the state.

Footnote 1:

Dynarski, M., & Nichols, A. (2017, July 13). More findings about school vouchers and test scores, and they are still negative. Evidence Speaks Reports, 2(18). Brookings Institute. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/ccf_20170713_mdynarski_evidence_speaks1.pdf;

Figlio, D. & Karbownik, K. (2016). Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program: Selection, Competition and Performance Effects. Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved from https://edex.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/publication/pdfs/FORDHAM%20Ed%20Choice%20Evaluation%20Report_online%20edition.pdf; Waddington, R.J., & Berends, M. (2018). Impact of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program: Achievement effects for students in upper elementary and middle school. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 37(4), 783-808.; Wolfe, P. J., Mills, J. N., Sude, Y., Erickson, H. H., & Lee. M. M. (2019). How has the Louisiana Scholarship Program Affected Students? A. Comprehensive Summary of Effects after Four Years. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform. Retrieved from http://www.uaedreform.org/wp-content/uploads/LSP4-Policy-Brief-SCDP.pdf

Footnote 2:

Suggs, D.W. & Suggs, C. (2020). GSBA Rural Task Force: 2020 Rural Report, Funding. Georgia School Boards Association. Retrieved from https://gsba.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/GSBA-Funding-rtf20.pdf

Footnote 3:

A family of four whose income was less than $53,000 in 2021 would be eligible for an ESA voucher under the income criteria. (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (n.d.) HHS Poverty Guidelines for 2021. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty-guidelines)

Footnote 4:

Qualifying disabilities include autism; deaf/blind; deaf/hard of hearing; emotional and behavioral disorder; intellectual disability; orthopedic impairment; other health impairment; specific learning disability; speech-language impairment; traumatic brain injury; or visual impairment.

Footnote 5:

Georgia Department of Education. (n.d.) State Earnings Sheet for FY 2021. Retrieved from https://financeweb.doe.k12.ga.us/QBEPublicWeb/ReportsMenu.aspx

Footnote 6:

Transportation expenditures would be capped at $500 per year.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram

Professional Association of Georgia Educators

 

P.O. Box 942270
Atlanta, GA 31141


2971 Flowers Road South
Suite 151
Atlanta, GA 30341

 

770-216-8555
800-334-6861

© 2021 by PAGE