House panel passes bill aimed at Clayton schools

ATLANTA - Legislation offering state-funded vouchers to students in schools or school systems that lose their accreditation easily passed a House committee Wednesday.

The bill, sparked by the recent threat to the accreditation of Clayton County Public Schools, already has passed the Senate and could reach the House floor as early as Friday.

The measure passed the Science and Technology Committee 6-2 along party lines, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats voting against it.

The bill would allow students in schools that lose their accreditation or in schools designated "needs improvement" under the federal No Child Left Behind law for seven straight years to transfer either to another public school or to a private school.

Legislative Democrats and organizations representing teachers and school administrators have criticized it as another bid by Republicans to promote spending public money on private school vouchers.

But Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, the bill's sponsor, said the track record of voucher programs shows that not enough students would take advantage of the transfer offer to affect the public schools they leave behind.

Johnson, R-Savannah, said no more than 5 percent of students typically take part in a voucher program. For one thing, parents are responsible for transportation when a student transfers.

"The purpose of this is not to send a bunch of kids to private schools," Johnson said.

With Johnson's support, the committee amended the bill to remove an amendment the Senate had added that would have required public school districts to accept transferring students.

Sen. John Douglas, R-Covington, whose district includes part of Henry County, said residents there were worried that students transferring in from the Clayton County system would deluge the Henry schools.

"We're facing in Henry County a perception that the dam is getting ready to break and a flood of thousands of students is about to come out of Clayton County," Douglas said.

But Johnson said the amendment approved by the committee would ensure that overcrowded school districts aren't forced to accept additional students they can't handle.

"It is subject to the receiving school whether they accept any child for any reason," he said.

Johnson introduced the bill last month after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the Clayton County system on notice that the district would lose its accreditation after Sept. 1 unless it fixes nine failures outlined in a report released by the organization.

That recommendation was ratified less than two weeks ago by SACS' national organization.