A key Republican in the Georgia House has broken from the ranks to question an initiative proposed by his party to offer school vouchers for special-needs students.
State Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who serves as vice chair of the House Education Committee, says he's received numerous e-mails from the education establishment in Georgia expressing reservations and outright opposition.
Millar wants to know how far his party plans to push vouchers. "Are we peeking through the door at vouchers or are we going to kick the door down?" he asks.
Rep. Robert Brown, D-Macon, and Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, have both likened the Republican effort to a "camel nose under the tent" lead-up to wholesale vouchers and a draining of funds from public schools.
Millar also questions passing a vouchers program at this particular time, when the state is facing a major lawsuit over how it pays for education. The plaintiff, the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia, maintains that the state's funding formula does not provide all children with what the state Constitution requires as "adequate" public schooling. Meanwhile, Gov. Sonny Perdue has charged a task force to examine how to better fund Georgia's schools, and the task force does not plan to deliver its report before the end of the current legislative session.
"The big thing that's hanging over our heads is how we're going to pay for public schools," Millar says. "When you're talking about vouchers you're talking about funding. The question is, 'How are we going to deal with that before the lawsuit?'"
Representing 55 percent, or nearly $9 billion, of all state spending, education is the lion's share of the state budget. Sen. Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who sponsored the Senate special-needs bill, says about 4,100 children would likely make use of vouchers during the first year, at $9,000 each.
Although the bill passed in the Senate, it faces an uncertain future in the House.
For Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Marietta, the issue comes down to accountability, and private schools are not subject to the same strictures as public schools.
Thompson spoke out against the bill when it came up for the vote in the Senate. "If any children need the protection of public education under the law -- in danger as they have been of being discriminated against, institutionalized, marginalized, hidden -- it's special-needs kids."
Millar's colleague, state Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, who chairs the House Education Committee, says he doesn't support broad-based vouchers, but does back the concept of special-needs vouchers, provided, in his words, that "there is adequate accountability."
Coleman says his biggest problem with the Senate bill enabling vouchers is that it doesn't require private-school teachers to be special-needs certified.
Rep. Kevin Levitas, D-Atlanta, is worried that the House will pass its version of special-needs vouchers with a few changes, including certification requirements for teachers, but without a lot of debate about the larger implications of vouchers.
"This is a complicated issue," says Levitas, who serves on the Education Committee. "I don't think we can possibly vote on this bill in such a short time frame. We're a deliberative body for a reason. My hope is that we would take the time to give this bill its full assessment. Let's slow it down. Let's hear from everybody."
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. David Casas, R-Lilburn, a teacher in the Cobb County School District, is scheduled to go before a subcommittee on education Feb. 15. Coleman said he was meeting with Casas this week to go over the bill "line by line." Before it reaches the full floor, it will have to pass out of the subcommittee and then the full committee.
If passed by the House, the two sides would have to meet to reconcile differences.
Johnson says states with special-needs-vouchers programs -- Utah, Ohio, Arizona and Florida -- report success. In Georgia, there is just a 32 percent public-school graduation rate of special-needs children.
The president pro tem told the Senate last week that opponents of the bill are really against vouchers, period. "The same group that wants choice for a mother with an unborn child doesn't want choice for a mother with a special-needs child," he said.