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**Georgia GOP Leaders Assert Influence in Latest Push for School Voucher Program**

An extension of Georgia’s school voucher program is receiving renewed attention this year following approval by the House Education Committee along party lines on Wednesday.

The revised version of the proposal entails offering parents $6,500 to withdraw their children from underperforming public schools and either enroll them in private institutions or opt for homeschooling. Advocates of expanding vouchers in Georgia, predominantly conservatives, argue that adopting a free-market approach would particularly benefit students who are underserved by their local public school system.

Although a voucher initiative made headway last year in the state Senate, it faced a setback when a few House Republicans, in conjunction with nearly all Democrats, opposed it. Critics of the voucher system contend that it diverts funds from school districts in need of additional resources, channeling them instead to private entities that lack public accountability. Moreover, the $6,500 allocation falls short of covering tuition fees at reputable private schools, essentially serving as a discount for families with existing financial means.

Lisa Morgan, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators, emphasized that the proposed scheme does not empower parents in selecting their children’s educational path. Instead, she highlights that private schools retain the prerogative to accept or reject students based on various criteria, potentially perpetuating discrimination. Morgan stresses the importance of recognizing that parents are not the primary beneficiaries of this initiative; rather, it grants private schools the autonomy to dictate enrollment policies.

The bill’s prospects for enactment seem more promising this year, buoyed by the endorsement of Speaker Jon Burns, the highest-ranking member of the House, who expressed strong support during the committee session. Speaker Burns underscored the urgency of breaking the cycle of students being confined to failing schools, advocating for a broader array of educational choices to unlock opportunities for children throughout the state.

Governor Brian Kemp has also voiced staunch backing for vouchers, urging legislators to prioritize this issue. The bill presented by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones incorporates several modifications from the previous year, including the establishment of the Georgia Education Savings Authority to oversee voucher programs and provisions facilitating student transfers between public school districts.

Furthermore, the bill ensures that teacher salary increases, sanctioned in recent years, become permanent. It also permits public schools to utilize state capital funds for constructing or refurbishing Pre-K facilities. Notably, the initiative targets students zoned within the lowest-performing 25% of schools, with added emphasis on families earning below 400% of the federal poverty line.

Despite Democrats’ reservations, Republicans on the committee lauded the bill, with Rep. Mesha Mainor praising its alignment with diverse family needs. In contrast, Democrats raised concerns about the limited time allocated for reviewing the comprehensive 39-page document.

Supporters of the voucher program contend that it would not detrimentally impact public school budgets, as the $6,500 allocation would offset the state’s financial contribution, while local taxes would still fund the schools. However, opponents argue that the financial equation does not factor in fixed costs like teacher salaries and operational expenses, which remain unchanged despite fluctuations in student enrollment.

A poll commissioned by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute and the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs Survey Research Center revealed mixed sentiments among Georgia voters and parents regarding vouchers. While a significant proportion favored increased state support for underperforming schools, a notable segment expressed preference for expanding school choice options or providing $6,500 vouchers.

In summation, the ongoing discourse surrounding Georgia’s school voucher program underscores the complex interplay between educational policy, funding allocation, and parental choice, reflecting a broader societal dialogue on the future of public and private education in the state.