The soft underbelly of school vouchers exposed

Cal Beverly's picture

[A rebuttal letter follows this column.]

A Column of Opinion — I’ve voted Republican for a quarter century, but I’m wishing I had some choices other than loony Democrats and hardcore “looking out for number one” Libertarians.

Latest exhibit: Senate Bill 458. Here is where ideological theory got pounded by political reality.

And its aftermath demonstrates how our GOP leaders — including senators Ronnie Chance (R-Tyrone) and Mitch Seabaugh (R-Sharpsburg), who are hard at work covering their posteriors before elections later this year — just don’t get it.

SB 458 started out as a school voucher bill, a GOP favorite. Then theory met the real world.

Clayton County schools face almost certain loss of accreditation this year, leaving thousands of innocent students without access to HOPE scholarships and competitive colleges.

GOP leaders had an “ah-ha” moment: Let’s push this voucher bill through now. Even Democrats will see how kids need an escape mechanism from failing schools.

The bill originally said neighboring school systems “may” accept such fleeing students, depending on space availability.

Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) insisted on changing “may accept” to “shall accept” and got her way.

By the way, Seay ostensibly represents a chunk of Fayette County, but she obviously cares not what Fayette voters want. Her allegiance lies entirely within Clayton County borders. Fayette voters — black and white — should remember that next election season.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Eric Johnson (R-Savannah), supposedly vetted the change in language with “legislative counsel” and supposedly was told that the change from “may” to “shall” would have no effect on the operation of the bill. Supposedly, receiving counties still would have veto option on incoming students.

Pardon me for a whispered reference to bovine manure.

If the word change made no difference, then why even make the change?

Who was misleading whom with this verbal trick?

And might I humbly suggest that the senators find another lawyer who will correctly instruct them on the very precise legal difference between “may” and “shall.”

Sen. Chance pleads ignorance of the word change in an interview last week with our John Munford. The meaning just slipped right by him, although he is the governor’s floor leader for legislation.

(His latest story is that the amendment to “shall” came as the result of unanimous passage of a “consent agenda” following a recorded vote. I guess you gotta be careful what you are consenting to.)

The Fayette County School System’s leaders clearly saw the implications in SB 458. They mobilized the local media and emailed parents about the pending bill.

Tens of thousands of emails and phone calls later, the senators are spinning a different story, as if the firestorm were caused by “misinformation” or mistaken reporting that unnecessarily inflamed the voting public.

Horse feathers. Somebody is telling a whopper.

The school system and the parents and the news media knew exactly what this “school choice” bill would do, and they rose up against it by the multiple thousands.

In a GOP county, the parents saw that the then-current GOP version of “school choice” would have been a disaster for Fayette County students and taxpayers.

And our GOP leaders in the legislature still don’t get it.

Had there not been an uprising, the “shall” bill would have slipped on through.

And Fayette County schools would be facing lawsuits and court-ordered acceptance of hundreds, maybe thousands, of Clayton students.

Either our GOP leaders — including Chance and Seabaugh — pushed through ideologically driven legislation without thinking through the consequences, or they didn’t understand themselves what the consequences might be for receiving systems.

Either way, they deserve to be taken to the woodshed.

Johnson himself is unrepentant. In a Friday news release, the Senate majority leader said in his op-ed piece, “It’s time for scholarships for children in failing schools ... Hold on, children. Help is on the way.”

Johnson continues, “The legislature is considering a lifeline for the parents of these children. SB 458 would require that the state funding for each child be offered to the parents as a scholarship that can be used to transfer the child to any public or private school that will accept the student. We estimate that the scholarship will be worth about $4,150 in Clayton County. That will cover a significant portion of private school tuition.”

The problem is that the state money would cover only about half the cost of educating a Clayton child in a Fayette school. Who picks up the difference between the state scholarship and the Fayette funding required? You and me, and all other Fayette — NOT Clayton — taxpayers.

Either we cough up more money for unexpected numbers of students, enough new tax money needed to educate all students to Fayette standards.

Or we take away money currently being spent to educate Fayette students in order to spread it around to accommodate the new students.

And that’s the soft underbelly of the school voucher argument.

State funds alone are not enough to educate students attending Fayette schools — or for that matter, most schools.

Fayette taxpayers cough up through local property taxes another $3,500 to $4,000 on top of state money.

It’s that addition by Fayette taxpayers that helps provide a superior education for Fayette students.

So far, all the GOP emphasis has been on allowing students in failing or unaccredited systems to transfer out to neighboring public systems or private schools.

There has been NO discussion on the impact of even moderate numbers of incoming students on the finances of receiving public systems.

And there simply are not enough private school classrooms to accommodate additional hundreds or thousands of fleeing students.

Now we hear (as of Monday afternoon) that the legislature — shocked by the Fayette uprising — has taken public schools out of the mix entirely, meaning that all fleeing students would have to find available private school space to accept them at $4,100 per pupil.

Do you suppose that we might see “voucher” academies start popping up in strip shopping centers, next to the pawn shops and title loan stores, advertising their willingness to accept students for — guess how much — the same amount as the state tuition of $4,100?

What kind of education might students receive from that approach?

The GOP at the Capitol is not legislating; it is flailing, jumping from one shaky position to another, its current substitute for clear thinking.

The Democrats are mired in race-based reactionary obstructionism entirely unrelated to good governance.

Voters need to exercise some quality control at the next election. If only there were any quality, thoughtful candidates to choose from ...

Rebuttal from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following email was received Tuesday afternoon in response to the online version of the above opinion column. It is reprinted in its entirety.]

The concern expressed regarding the effort by the General Assembly to come to the aid of Clayton County students (“The soft underbelly of school vouchers exposed,” 03/31/2008) makes some very dubious assumptions and alarms Fayette County residents unnecessarily.

Not only has the language in the proposed legislation been clearly amended to make acceptance of any out-of-district students voluntary, but the predicted financial impact on Fayette County is inaccurate.

Current Georgia law authorizes the state Board of Education to provide a procedure for a student to enroll in another school system. However, the statute declares that the board of education receiving the student must be “willing to receive and to permit such student to enroll in and to attend the public schools of such local unit.”

State funding always follows students who transfer to a public school in a school system other than their own.

Traditionally, the difference between the state funding and the receiving system’s costs are made up by local funds from the student’s home school system and/or tuition paid for by the student’s family. This amount is often negotiated in a contract between the two school systems.

Therefore, the Fayette County Board of Education is guaranteed the right to refuse admission of an out-of-district student and it is free to require funding (in addition to state funding) that in its judgment is fair.

If Fayette County were negatively impacted financially, it would be because of poor financial judgment and not due to state law.

Scaremongering that would deprive this state’s children of an adequate education is unfair, shortsighted and irresponsible.

Kelly McCutchen
Executive Vice President
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Atlanta, Ga.

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Submitted by Jones on Sat, 04/12/2008 - 10:49am.

Both Ronnie Chance and Matt Ramsey promised the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (a Republican tool) their support on house bill 458 early in the process. The Republican leadership in the legislature had told Chance and Ramsey everything they needed to know on the voucher bill in advance and Ramsey didn’t actually oppose the thing until Fayette parents found out what was going on.

Both Sen. Chance and Rep. Ramsey still supported the bill out of committee with a few word changes. The situation got so embarrassing for Ramsey he had to vote against the thing even though he promised the Republican leaders otherwise.

It’s pretty laughable how the Republicans try to sneak things through and then change their votes at the last minute when they’re found out.

Submitted by bowser on Wed, 04/02/2008 - 7:27am.

So the lofty-sounding Georgia Public Policy Foundation's position is: We support a new law encouraging cross-county public school vouchers, even if we don't really need a law because you can already do that if everybody agrees to it.

And if, as a result of this law, a receiving county such as Fayette is flooded with requests to take Clayton County students, well, that receiving county should just deal with it and figure out a way to make it work the way our brilliant pro-voucher legislators intend. And if there's any financial hit to the receiving county, it's because of its own "poor financial judgment." What about the diversion of resources and attention and energy that would be required? A small price to pay in service of the voucher crusade.

And anybody who says boo to this is "scaremongering."

What an arrogant crock. I hope Ms. McCutchen is getting paid well to look like such a fool.

Submitted by swmbo on Tue, 04/01/2008 - 1:11pm.

I would add these 2 things:

First, imagine the nightmare of this situation when the north end of Fayette county is inundated by Clayton students whose parents might not come pick up their kids on time (meaning overtime costs to Fayette taxpayers for supervising Clayton's children or that they roam our streets unsupervised).

Second, without a requirement for accredited public schools to accept children from failing schools, if private schools cost more than a voucher, the failure to provide children in failing schools with an affordable option is effectively expelling those children from public school (which has all sorts of legal consequences).

When you add that up, it means that the only way to make vouchers work legally is to force the problem onto school districts that were responsible in their behavior -- that is not the model of "accountability" that the Republican party claims to promote.

Time to identify Ronnie's (and Seay's) next opponent.

If you and I are always in agreement, one of us is likely armed and dangerous.

Robert W. Morgan's picture
Submitted by Robert W. Morgan on Sat, 04/19/2008 - 6:41am.

I saw one yesterday at Booth Middle School in PTC - asking the crossing guard if she was at the right school. And no, she didn't move to Fayette, she's lived in Clayton for 10 years and still does. How do I know all this? I saw her later and work and asked if she had moved. She just laughed and said, no she just moved her daughter to a better school. That's the attitude and of course you all know about the do-nothing school board and its enforcement policies.

The sad thing is that this is a very educated and capable parent, the kid seems very respectful and is probably a good student and I'm probably not going to report it - making me a flaming hypocrite.

Submitted by AllKnowing on Mon, 03/31/2008 - 5:30pm.

Cal, you are right on with this column. What is really scary to me is how many other peices of legislation Ronnie Chance has not read or been "misled" on. The newcomer Matt Ramsey stepped up to the plate to try to save this county. He actually called and emailed back to the citizens, unlike "high and mighty" Ronnie Chance. Time for some fresh elected representatives, if you ask me.

Submitted by homesweethomeptc on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 6:21pm.

Hey Knownothing, do the math on how long it would take you to personally respond to Sen. Chance's phone calls and e-mails. I know you think you're his only constituent that matters, since you're all-knowing and all, but lets be realistic. He Reps 5 Counties. VERY conservative estimate that in the past week he has received 250 e-mails per day, and let's say 100 phone calls. Sound fair? I'd say its twice that but we'll go with 250/100. Minimum time to respond to an e-mail personally? 30 seconds (again very conservative). Minimum time to call back a constituent? 3 minutes (probably usually more like an hour). So let's go with those assumptions.

He would be spending 425 minutes per day, or 7 hours five minutes per day responding to his constituents. Let's add that to a 5 hour Senate session, 2 hours of committee meetings, a 1.5 hour roundtrip commute, an hour at Rotary or a school board meeting and maybe 5 hours of sleep (a good State Senator wouldn't DARE get adequate sleep). 21h35m total. That would leave 2 hours 25 minutes per day to earn a living at your real job, spend time with your wife and children, eat food and/or be a human.

Let's compare that with how long it took you to send your self-important e-mail or make your demanding phone call? 30 seconds or 1 minute respectively? Wow, I can't believe he didn't personally call you back....what a tragedy and such a crushing blow to your blowhard ego.

Submitted by Margot on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 10:02pm.

The recent events were just a mass exposure of what many voters already knew about Ronnie. From day one when he first took office, Chance would not respond to his constituents letters when he had the time. People have constantly complained about this for 3 years. Ronnie just wanted to be a politician not a representative. Running unopposed for his 2nd term wasn't a good thing either. It tends to make a politician too over-confident. Let this be a lesson for all candidates for public office that the citizens want responsive representatives. When Ronnie runs for re-election and he will, let's not take another CHANCE.

Submitted by homesweethomeptc on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 12:23am.

than to ever post on a blog, but I've already made that mistake. The point I was simply trying to make is that its not realistic to expect your State Senator to reply personally to every correspondence they receive. We are not a direct democracy, we are a Republic, meaning the people elect their leaders to represent them NOT TO DO THEIR EVERY BIDDING. it is fine and fair to expect much of your leaders, but to think that every citizen today can have a dialogue with their President, Senator, or even councilman with something as informal and effortless as an e-mail is a ridiculous fallacy. Sure, if you're happy to receive an auto-pen mass letter or an intern's generic response then the situation is different (and that is what you are receiving when you get a response from others). But to me those types of responses are as worthless as doing nothing. If you need to speak with your Senator, go to the Capitol, see him at an event and in person. After all, thats how it had been done for two hundred years of our democracy. Just because you have this new tool of e-mail doesn't suddenly mean that your State Senator sits at his desk awaiting your mighty and powerful typing.

If your goal is to revel in tearing down someone who has burned the candle at all ends doing a very good job representing you, then have at it. If you are so inclined why don't you do the honorable thing and confront him about it personally. Instead this online community is content to throw grenades from afar with a cloak over your face. Respect for dissent is certainly a foundational principal for our democracy and for that reason go right on ahead with your tarring and feathers. But if you truly are concerned for the welfare of your community, the strength of your local democracy and the decorum of debate why not be a tad more constructive with your time by asking smart questions in a respectful manner. Disagree with his actions or his policy, but take the good with the bad instead of jumping on the bandwagon. You're all very clever and witty and I'm sure the Peabody award committee is reviewing your posts right this minute for accolades. But take just a minute, I beg you, to think twice about inflaming the slander of this man. What has he truly done? He was so unfortunate as to be hoodwinked by a member of his delegation, was alerted to it, fixed the problem immediately and atoned for his mistake of mere oversight. If your head was demanded every time you forgot something or overlooked a detail I dare say you would not have made it past three, nor would I.

bad_ptc's picture
Submitted by bad_ptc on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 8:46pm.

Had Sen. Chance voted against this bill he wouldn’t find himself in the position of having to respond to 1,000’s of emails/phone calls in the first place.

What a maroon! (Bugs Bunny)

The recent “C.Y.A.” attempts of Rep. Ramsey and Sen. Chance remind me of the great Abbot and Costello, “Who’s on First”.

Now Rep. Ramsey apparently wants to step in it again with his epiphany of:
“The charter school’s petition typically seeks waivers for exemptions from state education mandates, regulations, policies and procedures which are built into their contract with the state.”

“In exchange for this flexibility, the charter school is bound by contract to be held accountable for meeting the performance-based objectives specified in the charter.”

What the hell do we spend our tax dollars on with the FCBoE if not to be held accountable for meeting the performance-based objectives?

Is it so difficult for either of these two to understand that we’ll vote them out of office if they keep representing the interests of Clayton County over Fayette County?

cogitoergofay's picture
Submitted by cogitoergofay on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 8:45pm.

There are many ways to respond to communication in an organized fashion, particularly through the use of volunteer interns. Anyone ever involved in the legislative/constituent process knows that. Why do you think the "Auto-Pen" was invented?

Homesweethome exhibits that arrogant, contemptous attitude displayed by former State Senator Rick Price. He would walk in his office, retrieve his phone messages and except for a couple of influential callers the rest got the trash can. And, when questioned on a matter, he always said "Call your State Rep." His successor Mitch Seabaugh took a little while but became equally as unresponsive (unless he needed something).

The subject of no response by Chance extends to several local elected officials. You would think that the likelihood of some official reason for the call would prompt Chance to call the official. No, he is too busy.

I would also say this---- I cannot remember a single time Dan Lakly did not return my call. Was he superhuman? Was I the only one who ever called him?

Submitted by homesweethomeptc on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 12:32am.

when the message is identical to the last thousand? You think he wasn't aware of the issue, you think he didn't get it the first time? What exactly were you going to say to the man that he didn't already know? I think I know, you wanted to belittle and chastise him, telling him you knew better and he didnt. You wanted to climb high atop your tower and verbally rain down upon him for being so moronic as to miss a single word slipped in a bill that bears a striking resemblance to the one it replaced. Well, I hope you have received some personal solace from the nightmare you all have rained down upon this man. I am sure that your pointless service job is just that much more bearable because you have belittled a much better man than you. Really, take the solace. Because your message has been delivered a thousand times over by this rag and those thousand e-mails. You have done your democratic duty to hold a candle where there was already a forest fire, congratulations. I'm truly sorry that Senator Chance didn't return your call, I'll go grab some kleenex.

yardman5508's picture
Submitted by yardman5508 on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 8:55pm.

of all the things these officials can do to us and do to us, they cannot put themselves in office. They require us to do that for them. USE YOUR POWER. Keep the faith.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Git Real's picture
Submitted by Git Real on Thu, 04/03/2008 - 8:41pm.

Do your job correctly without endangering your constituency and you won't become inundated with all that hate mail. Remember you are our senator and not the errand boy of Silly Purdue. Your loyalties and primary concerns are those of us with the "blowhard ego's" as you put it.

What we need is a bunch of Dan Lakly's to step up to the plate.


The Sissy And The Word Defined

Submitted by Missy-Sippy on Fri, 04/04/2008 - 10:32am.

Ronnie Chance sat on the Capitol wall, Ronnie Chance had a great fall, all the Governor's horses and all the Governor's men, couldn't put Ronnie back together again.

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