When last we visited the question of school choice in the 2018 legislative session, matters were looking shaky. But, proving once again that it ain’t over ’til it’s over, two bills to boost choice for Georgia families finally crossed the finish line in decent shape before lawmakers gaveled out for the year.
Both House Bill 787, which improves funding equity for state charter schools, and HB 217, which raises the cap on the state’s popular tax-credit scholarship program, won approval from the Senate Thursday evening. House members fixed HB 787, removing the poison pills the Senate education committee had inserted into it, and the Senate eventually went along with those changes by a vote of 43-7. Now charters approved by a state commission will receive a bit more funding, up to the statewide average for traditional public schools. It’s not a huge increase -- about $400 per pupil per year -- but it’s a step forward.
HB 217, which stalled at the end of the 2017 session, also is headed to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk after the Senate approved it by a vote of 34-20. It raises the cap on tax credits for donors to private scholarship programs to $100 million per year from the current $58 million. But there’s a catch: The increase is due to sunset in 10 years unless legislators renew it. As I’ve explained before, the sunset provision owes to a new Senate policy for tax credits that makes sense in many cases, but not all -- and definitely not in this case. But the 10-year window at least delays the day when students may be caught without the financial aid they need to continue attending the right school for them. In the meantime, expect a great deal of pressure on lawmakers to extend or remove that sunset provision in the years to come.
I’ve been critical of him before on this issue, so I want to point out the role Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle played in ensuring these measures made it through the Senate. When senators either balked at funding one group of public schools adequately (HB 787) or insisted on setting an end date for an entire, valuable program (HB 217), his staff insisted they would work things out in the end. And by all accounts, they did. After several years of frustration for school-choice advocates, that was refreshing to see.