By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 13, 2008
Lobbyists for the Georgia Catholic Conference are getting behind a proposal that would allow students in failing schools to use state education vouchers to transfer to other schools, including parochial schools.
The measure, SB 458, passed the Georgia Senate Wednesday, March 5, and now moves over to the House of Representatives.
Frank Mulcahy, the executive director for the Georgia Catholic conference, said the bill is in line with Catholic social teaching since it empowers parents to govern the education of their children. The Catholic conference is the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Georgia.
“Anything that gives parents the options in a better place, be it in a public school or a private school, we’d be in favor. It’s a bill that benefits the parents, benefits the students,” Mulcahy said.
Sponsors of the bill said the measure is designed to help parents and the 53,000 students in Clayton County where the school system is under threat to lose its accreditation. If that happens, students’ academic careers could be in jeopardy with the loss of scholarships, difficulty in applying to colleges and transferring to other schools.
The legislation allows students in troubled schools to transfer to public or private schools. The state’s portion of education funding per student would follow the child. According to reports, students from Clayton County could receive vouchers for $4,100 to defer tuition at private schools or it would be used at another public school.
According to reports, opponents are worried that putting the money in private schools hurts the public school system.
The Senate bill also permits student transfers from schools that have sat on the state’s “Needs Improvement” list for seven consecutive years.
The bill, proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), passed the Senate 32-21.
If the measure becomes law, the Atlanta Archdiocese has a handful of Catholic schools that could absorb students from Clayton County, said archdiocesan school Superintendent Diane Starkovich in an e-mail message. The closest Catholic schools would be Our Lady of Mercy High School and Our Lady of Victory, St. Peter Claver and St. John the Evangelist elementary schools, she said. The numbers of openings vary from school to school but could run as high as 40 students per school, she said.
The bill mirrors a law that went into effect last year that allowed students with special needs to use state education funds to pay for private schools.
Overall, 899 Georgia students participated in the program, costing some $5.6 million. The average voucher for a student with special needs was $6,273, according to state figures.
Starkovich said that nearly a dozen students with special needs entered the archdiocesan school system using the vouchers. At this point, she does not have information on how much state money the Catholic schools system has received through the special needs voucher program.