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Senator works for school choice vouchers

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POSTED: March 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah)

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After successfully pushing through a measure to give vouchers to parents of special needs students last year, Georgia Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah) is continuing his campaign to make vouchers a permanent fixture in the state's education system.
The lawmaker, who represents Liberty County, recently filed Senate Bill 458, which would force underachieving public schools and non-accredited school systems to provide vouchers to their students so they can attend another public or private school of their choice.
The amount of the voucher would be the lesser of the amount of state funding a student's public school receives on a per pupil basis and the cost of a year's tuition at the student's chosen new school.
The Senate president pro tem said he introduced the bill because he is concerned that graduates from non-accredited schools and school systems will not qualify for the HOPE scholarship and their ability to attend college will be jeopardized. Students may also have a hard time transferring grades and credit hours to another school.
SB 458 would give students the opportunity to transfer from poorly performing school to a school that is meeting or exceeding standards by mandating any school on Georgia's "needs improvement" list for seven years offer their students the state-funded vouchers.
"If local school boards fail to deliver a quality education after seven years or fail to be accredited, then we owe it to the children in these failing schools to provide an alternative path to a good, quality education," Johnson said.
There are currently 19 schools across Georgia that have been on the "needs improvement" list for seven or more years.
Based on a 2007 Annual Yearly Progress Report released by the Georgia Department of Education in September, two schools in the Liberty County School System are currently on the "needs improvement" list. Midway Middle School has been on the list for the past two years, while Liberty County High School was placed on the list last year.
Johnson, a supporter of school choice, said the voucher bill stands a good chance of making it out of the Senate, but was unsure of its fate in the Georgia House.
Lobbyists for the Georgia Association of Educators argue that if passed, the voucher program would be a significant blow to the state's public education system.
They maintain Johnson's bill would lead to many public schools being abandoned by their communities and focuses too much on "punishment and not enough on supportive measures."
"When a school has been found struggling, rather than dismantling the school, there should be a strong and sincere rehabilitative effort to help the school regain its accreditation," GAE President Jeff Hubbard said.
Johnson, however, said the GAE and other advocates are missing the point.
"People who argue that (vouchers) hurt the public school system forget that it's not about the school system. It's about the children," the senator said. "If a school's been on the 'needs improvement' list for seven years...at what point do you say it's screwed up and somebody needs to look out for the students?"
 

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