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Long-Lost Voucher Law Stirs Choice Movement in Ga.

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Advocates of school choice in Georgia have unearthed a long-forgotten school-voucher law that they hope to revive in order to win public funding for private school tuition.

It was unclear last week whether the 1961 law, which critics say was intended to resist school desegregation, is still alive or was killed by subsequent legislation.

Nevertheless, the existence of the statute appears to have spurred a voucher movement by prompting hundreds of parents to ask the state to give them money to send their children to private schools.

Taking no position on school choice but calling it "a legitimate issue,'' Lieut. Gov. Pierre Howard has asked the Senate to hold public hearings on the current status of the law.

Sen. Sallie P. Newbill last week said she plans in January to introduce legislation to fund vouchers under the 1961 law.

Ms. Newbill, the Senate minority whip, already claims to have many of her fellow Republicans, as well as some Democrats, behind her effort. Many other lawmakers, she said, appear to "have their fingers stuck up in the wind'' and could come on board if California voters next month pass a voucher proposal on the state ballot. (See story, page 1.)

"We need to have a full-blown discussion of what is wrong with public education in Georgia,'' Ms. Newbill said, noting that the state's students consistently rank near the bottom in comparisons with other states.

"This school-choice bill is going to provide that opportunity,'' she maintained.

Efforts to revive the law will have to overcome resistance, however, from the Georgia Association of Educators, which says the 1961 law is inoperative and "fundamentally flawed.''

"Voucher proposals signal an abandonment of the public school system,'' asserted Carolyn Lee Hart, the association's president.

The 1961 statute was unearthed by Glenn A. Delk, an Atlanta lawyer representing a mother who is seeking help to take her daughter out of the city's public schools.

Parents Stake Voucher Claims

That law, passed at a time when Georgia school districts were threatening to shut down rather than accept court-ordered desegregation, provided for grants of state and local funds to be made available for children to attend nonsectarian private schools.

Citing the law, the mother, Dawna Hill, has asked the Atlanta school board for a grant of public funds to send her daugher to a private school. Ms. Hill asserted in a letter that she needs such a grant to insure her daughter's right under the state constitution to an "adequate education.''

Mr. Delk said hundreds of other parents have come forward to ask for help since his announcement this summer of the existence of the 1961 law. Although the Atlanta board has not responded to Ms. Hill's request, parents in other school systems have been told by district officials that the 1961 law is no longer operative.

Mr. Delk disagrees, arguing that the 1961 law "has never been repealed'' and "seems pretty clear on its face.'' He has threatened to file suit on behalf of parents whose grant requests were denied.

Governor Had Backed Measure

Much of the debate over the 1961 law centers on its intent.

In an unofficial legal opinion issued last month at Senator Newbill's request, Attorney General Michael J. Bowers said the measure could be challenged in court as "conceived with a discriminatory intent.''

That view raised a delicate question, however, for Gov. Zell Miller, who voted for the law as a a freshman senator.

Mr. Miller, a Democrat, last month said he had viewed the measure not as a way to let children abandon desegregated public schools, but as insurance that children would continue to receive an education if their local school systems tried to close rather than desegregate.

"I supported that bill because it was a way to keep kids in school,'' the Governor said.

The attorney general's opinion also said the 1961 law is no longer operative because it was tied to a school-finance system the legislature replaced with a sweeping school-reform law in 1985.

Senator Newbill last week argued, however, that lawmakers would not have left the 1961 law on the books if they had meant for it to be repealed.

Ms. Newbill added that the bill she plans to introduce will change how state education grants are calculated in order to fund state and local grants for students to attend private schools.

"A voucher system or school choice is part of the mix of things that need to be done to improve the quality of education for all children,'' said Matthew J. Glavin, the president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank.

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