It takes 120 votes to pass a bill through the General Assembly: 29 or more in the Senate, and 91 or more in the House. In the waning hours of the 2023 legislative session, a major school choice bill fell a mere five votes short.
Senate Bill 233, which would create $6,500 Promise Scholarship Accounts for students who leave low-performing public schools for private or home schooling, came to the House floor just before 8 p.m. on the 40th and final day of the legislative session. It was the dramatic moment pretty much all Gold Dome denizens had been waiting for, as a great deal of other legislation had been held up pending a resolution of this high-profile bill.
After nearly an hour’s debate – after an even longer debate last Thursday, when the bill was introduced and then tabled – Speaker Jon Burns called the question. Burns later told news reporters he would have voted for the bill, as the crucial 91st vote, if given the opportunity.
Alas, after a longer than usual voting period in which proponents made emotional final appeals, the bill failed on an 85-89 vote. A lone Democrat, Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, voted for it; 16 Republicans, most of them from rural areas or smaller cities, joined all of the other Democrats in opposing it. This was a slightly less partisan result than in the state Senate, which passed the bill on a purely party-line vote.
For an issue that enjoys strong public support transcending partisanship, this is a disappointing outcome. Two recent statewide opinion polls found that more than two-thirds of Georgia voters support the concept of Promise Scholarships, including majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents. There is no good reason for school choice not to be a bipartisan priority.
If this is going to become a partisan issue, however, it is clear that high-ranking Republicans are ready to embrace it.
Gov. Brian Kemp in the final days of the session intervened often, and with increasing intensity, to support the bill’s passage. Speaker Burns did the same. Lt. Gov. Burt Jones was publicly vocal about backing the bill. The entire GOP leadership structure in both the Senate and the House got behind the bill, with Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones playing an especially key role. While their efforts came up just short in 2023, they now have several months to lay the groundwork for success in 2024.
The right way to do so may be to reframe the narrative around Promise Scholarship Accounts.
To secure enough votes in the Senate, SB 233 was amended to limit eligibility to those students who attend schools ranked in the bottom 25% for performance. The program was not going to be funded for all students who wanted an account to get one anyway, so limiting it on the basis of academic need is not a bad idea.
However, doing so led to a political Rorschach test: Would having a lot of bottom 25% schools in one’s area mean a larger negative (for local school systems) or a larger positive (for students stuck in those schools)? Unfortunately, most lawmakers chose the first lens, because it went a long way to determining how loudly their local education officials opposed the bill.
Superintendents and school board members view school choice through the prism of how much money and power it will cost them. So naturally, they oppose pretty much everything.
Parents – who are always more numerous in any community than school-system employees – view such things in the light of whether it will give them access to what they need to ensure their children get the best education possible. But they aren’t as organized and vocal as the educrats, so their voices tend to be drowned out.
Perhaps they’ll get louder, now that they know whose side their elected representatives took.