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Voucher bill aimed at Clayton schools clears committee

By Dave Williams

dave.williams@graypub.com

ATLANTA - Children in public schools or school systems that lose their accreditation would be allowed to transfer out under legislation approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

The bill, which cleared the Education and Youth Committee 7-4, is statewide in scope, but was spurred by the recent threat to the accreditation of Clayton County Public Schools.

The Southern Association of Colleges and Universities notified Clayton school officials two weeks ago that the district could be stripped of its accreditation by Sept. 1, if the district fails to make a list of improvements called for in a report released by the association.

The legislation would provide scholarships to parents of kids in schools or districts that lose accreditation, so they could transfer to another public school or to a private school approved by the state Department of Education.

This marks the second year in a row that lawmakers have taken up a school voucher bill.

Last year, the General Assembly enacted a measure to provide vouchers to help parents send children with special needs to private schools.

Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, who sponsored last year's legislation, said he hadn't planned to introduce another voucher bill this year.

But he said the predicament facing Clayton parents and students prompted him to act.

"I don't claim that vouchers help every child," said Johnson (R-Savannah). "But they help some."

Johnson's bill is one of three the General Assembly is expected to take up this year pertaining to the problems plaguing Clayton schools.

Rep. Mike Glanton (D-Ellenwood) has introduced local legislation aimed at developing an ethics policy for the Clayton Board of Education.

Also, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced last week that he would push a statewide measure automatically triggering school board elections in any district that loses its accreditation.

Local voters would be given an opportunity to remove their entire school board under the governor's bill.

Perdue said he doesn't expect that to happen,because he believes Clayton schools can comply with the association's demands in time to meet the deadline.

Johnson said he doesn't believe the provisions in his bill will ever need to be fulfilled, either.

"I don't expect a single voucher to be issued if this becomes law," he said. "I hope what it does is force the school district to realize they don't want to lose their accreditation."

If Clayton or any other entire school system did lose its accreditation, however, Johnson said most of the transferring students probably would move to private schools.

In such a situation, students wishing to transfer to another public school would have to move outside of the district.

"There has to be room," Johnson said. "They would have to be willing to accept the child."

All four committee members who voted against Johnson's bill were Democrats who oppose private school vouchers as a drain on funds that otherwise would go to public education.

The bill could reach the Senate floor by the end of this week.