Is it a scholarship for customized education or a voucher in disguise?  That is at the heart of a debate that reignited under the Gold Dome in Georgia’s Statehouse in Atlanta on Thursday.  Georgia lawmakers are considering a controversial bill called the Educational Scholarship Act, but critics say it’s a voucher program that will shift state tax money and students, out of public schools and into private schools.

There are two bills, one in each branch of the legislature, but it was the Senate’s version that gained some traction on Thursday in Atlanta, easily passing out of the Finance Committee in the State Senate.  Supporters say it’s better than vouchers, but Julie M. Wade, a member of the Chatham County School Board,  says it will have negative impacts if passed into law. ” The student scholarship programs, which pay people to attend private schools.  It takes money out of the public school system and put it in the private school system, which is unregulated and has no accountability and is not transparent… and it’s pulling dollars, but it’s also pulling students out of our schools and again we need everyone to participate in public education to have the strongest public school system possible,” said Wade.

State senators addressed the bill in the Finance Committee on Thursday, gaining enough traction to win approval win approval nine-to-three.  Supporters, like Jamie Lord, a lobbyist with the Georgia Center for Opportunity, says it goes beyond a simple voucher, by allowing parents to customize their kids educations, “This basically allows parents to take a portion of the money that the state would have spent on that child’s education and then direct it to customize education for their child, that that might include private school tuition, homeschool curriculums, tutoring, therapeutic for kids with special needs, it really is a sort of 21st-century way to educate the child by providing a customized experience,” Lord said, adding, ” The vast majority of families are going to find that their children are best served in our excellent public schools in Georgia, but for some families their students are just not thriving.  So this is a way to help a few that need something else. I don’t believe it will harm the public school system, although the system is less my concern than the individual students in it,” said Lord.

Wade says the measure is more than a slippery slope, it’s the beginning of real erosion in public schools in terms of student populations and state funding,  ” There’s a variety of bills that are really incentivizing people to leave the public school system and putting more burdens and mandates on the public school system. And I’m just not comfortable with a government that is encouraging the citizenship to leave the public school system,”  Wade said.

The Educational Scholarship Act has a major hurdle before making it to the governor’s desk.  The bill must make it out of the house or the Senate before next Thursday, which is Cross-over Day.  if it doesn’t cross over, from house to senate, or vice-versa, then it’s dead this session.  Both sides are watching closely.