The PFPS Interview: Darian Burns from SEF and Mason Goodwin from GYJC on Fighting Voucher Expansion in Georgia

The latest installment in the Public Funds Public Schools interview series highlights the work of public education advocates in Georgia, who successfully defeated private school voucher proposals during the 2023 legislative session. As these proposals continue to pass in states across the country at alarming rates, it is more crucial than ever that state and local organizations share knowledge and strategies on how best to oppose these harmful policies.

Nicole Ciullo, Research & Policy Associate at Education Law Center, which directs the PFPS campaign, spoke with Darian Burns, Legislative & Public Policy Analyst at the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), and Mason Goodwin, Advocacy Co-Director at the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition (GYJC). Read on for their strategy tips and links to some of the best resources they've used.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nicole Ciullo: Darian, can you please tell us about the Southern Education Foundation, its mission, and why vouchers are an important issue for the organization?

Darian Burns: The Southern Education Foundation has been around for just over 155 years. We were founded in 1867, originally as the Peabody Fund, just after the Civil War. We have three core areas of work: Government Affairs and Advocacy, which is the team that I help support; Leadership Development; and Research & Policy. Our mission is deeply rooted in racial equity and advancing equitable education policies for low-income students as well as Black and Brown students across the southern region. The way we define the South has much to do with our founding. Any state that had a formal structure of enslavement is determined to be the South, and these are the states that we aim to be supportive in. This includes all the traditional southern states like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana, as well as states as far north as Delaware and as far west as Oklahoma.

Why vouchers are an important issue for our organization also has to do with our founding just after the Civil War. Much of the original creation of our organization had to do with supporting the newly emancipated population, and the first thing that population wanted to do was establish a public education system. During Reconstruction, it was actually a lot of Black leaders that put forth the idea of having a public tax system to develop places for learning, like schools, to be able to teach their children.

And so, with Brown v. Board of Education, when you see efforts to integrate and then efforts to not integrate schools, we see an increase in the development of voucher programs, which of course are where students can go to private schools using public funds for their tuition. But the purpose of these voucher programs after Brown v. Board was so that people could choose who they went to school with, and often this was to exclude Black people. This is inherently contradictory to our mission and the founding of our organization, so we vehemently oppose the practice of vouchers today.

NC: Mason, can you please tell us about yourself, the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, and how and why you got involved with public education advocacy?

Mason Goodwin: I'm a senior at Georgia State University, and I'm Advocacy Co-Director at the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. We were founded in January 2021, and we're a group of Black, Brown, queer, allied, working class students across the state. Our ages range from 14 to 24, and a lot of us are public education graduates. The organization was formed so we could start advocating better for ourselves rather than just waiting on someone else to make policy that would address issues in our public education system. A lot of us felt the impact of the 2008 Recession when all the budgets were cut in the state, and the education budget wasn’t funded until the last two years. We've experienced all those consequences, including a state charter school system coming in and segregating schools further, and a lot of us were like, “No, this is the system that we came from, the system where most of us belong, and it can be better.” And we see voucher programs as not solving the actual issues for our public schools. So that's why we oppose the voucher system. It's just not the solution. It doesn't apply to where most students are.

NC: How did the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition come together? How did you find other students who shared your point of view?

MG: I wasn't one of the original founders – I came in about a year later – but it started with a really small group of five or 10 students who decided they were going to start doing this work. With the climate of politics now, once these students got the momentum going, they realized everyone else was also looking for a space to find that community they weren't finding in their schools and to find solutions that they weren't finding out of public officials who represent them in office.

NC: Several voucher bills, including proposals to create an education savings account voucher program with universal eligibility and to expand the state's tax credit voucher program, were introduced in Georgia during the 2023 legislative session. Can you please tell us a bit about these bills and provide a recap of what occurred during the session?

DB: Senate Bill 233 was Georgia’s education savings account proposal, which was introduced very close to the end of session. The bill initially provided $6,500 in public funds to students. Before we started advocating against it, the voucher was going to be available to all students without an income cap. Then they made it so students were eligible if they attended a school in the bottom 25% by the state rating system, but still no income requirements. If just 3% of students used this voucher, which then dropped to $6,000, hundreds of millions of dollars would be taken away from the public education system. We never got a fiscal note, and so that was also very telling about the way the bill was thought through. One of the provisions said that schools receiving these funds didn’t have to be accredited, just in the process of accreditation.

MG: I'll add that the bill didn't have the votes in the Senate or in the House. A lot of our holdouts were rural Republicans who knew this was going to hurt their district and that they're not going to benefit. They might not even have a private school in the district in the first place. On the Senate side, the way it got through was because of an amendment where only the bottom 25% of schools and students in those schools could qualify. Another amendment was that they had to be public school students for two years. On the House side, they pushed through one vote on the signing days right before the end of session. They didn't have the votes, so they didn't take the vote publicly. The bill died and got referred back to the Rules Committee. It then got brought back up on the last day of session at about 11 p.m. We had been talking to lawmakers making sure they understood the impact on their district. We were able to stop it with five total votes, and now we're waiting to see if we'll have renewal either during a special session, which could happen in the next month, or during our official session, which will start in January. [SB 233 was not re-introduced during the special session.]

The tax credit voucher bill was House Bill 54. It would have expanded the state’s tax credit program from $120 million to $200 million. The way our tax program works is that student scholarship organizations take from the pool of money and then hand out vouchers. The big issue is there's no accountability or reporting. We don't know who these students are, their race, income, status, etc.; we have no clue. None of the organizations are mandated to report any of that to the state. And then we don't know how well these students are performing once they actually get into the schools. In 2018, a report was put out about the tax credit program that cited all of these things and stated that reporting requirements have to be put in place before it’s expanded. And a lot of our senators are very aware of that, and so the tax credit bill died in a committee. A good strategy voucher proponents used was attaching the tax credit to another bill – and it was attached to a good bill – that they wanted to go through. They basically tried to use it to cover up the tax credit program. Our chairman of the Finance Committee, who greatly understands the fiscal impact of these things and understands the report requirements, separated it into a different bill. And that's what actually killed it in committee. A bunch of amendments were made to start requiring reporting and to put a sunset on the program, which was a win. The sponsors eventually just pulled the bill because they didn't want those systems.

DB: I would add that the reports finding that the tax credit scholarship lacks guardrails for transparency and accountability were published by the Georgia Department of Audits in the Department of Revenue. They reported that in 2018.They also did one in 2021 that said some of their concerns were addressed, however not all of them. They came out with a recent one in 2023 that was an economic analysis report that was a little bit softer. But the National Education Policy Center in Colorado did a review of the Georgia Department of Revenue report on the tax credit scholarship, saying that the Department of Revenue’s report lacks transparency and accountability. A big talking point we tried to use is fiscal stewardship and responsible uses of taxpayer dollars, and that stands with some people but not others.

NC: Can you give a bit more information about the role that you and other advocates played in the efforts to defeat these proposals and the challenges you overcame?

MG: For the tax credit voucher bill, a lot of it was just using resources we already had. We also work with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) and Stephen Owens, who has been reporting for years on the harms of the tax credit program, so we had a lot of research already. The other was having the state resources from the Department of Revenue. It was just a matter of getting that information into the hands of the right legislators, direct lobbying, and then playing the game correctly. That bill was filed at the very start of session, and we had prepped beforehand. With SB 233, our universal program, that was less about the policy work and more about the world of politics at that point and knowing how to play that game as well as possible.

I think the universal bill was killed by two things outside the policy work. One, we had a lot of people showing up at the Capitol who were talking to their legislators directly, saying that this is going to hurt their district in this way. We're also part of a group called Fund Georgia’s Future where we have a big lobby day to bring people out to talk to the legislators, and I think that was really impactful. The other was the work from the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. We were training students during the session, even if it was just five or 10 students at a time. We got folks talking to legislators in January and February, two months before the vote even occurred. I think that created a lot of questioning. All of a sudden, these lawmakers were going to the superintendents, going into their districts to talk to them about the actual impact of the bill. It was the local communities and all of these districts that were aware, and they were calling their superintendent, they were calling their school board members. Legislators then had different superintendents calling them, saying “this is going to harm my district.”

DB: In terms of the role that SEF played, we tried to provide and add value where we saw fit. SEF did a review of the tax credit voucher program years ago, and a lot of those same concerns still stand today, so we definitely used that to beef up the advocacy toolkit about HB 54 that Fund Georgia’s Future developed for the lobby day. We participated in that lobby day as well. In addition to that, we provided talking points; we have our own "say no to vouchers" one-pager that we distributed to lawmakers directly and through email. I would add that having the Fund Georgia’s Future Coalition, folks who were at the Capitol day in and day out talking directly to the lawmakers, having and using those relationships, gathering and sharing intel, and giving us a directive on how best we could use this information was impactful. Also, “Every Action,” where you can send out alerts that automatically send letters to your legislators. We posted that on our social media, and we sent that through our networks. Any way that we could provide that kind of support, we were. And the biggest thing is the local folks, and I'd say the map visuals showing where that money was leaving and who was benefiting.

NC: Can you tell me more about the map?

DB: It was developed by GBPI. It’s a map of the state of Georgia. The red shows which counties the money was leaving for the tax credit scholarship, and the blue shows where would be benefiting. It’s a visual showing the money being siphoned from many, many rural counties in Georgia, and being used in the metro areas like Fulton County. It was incredibly helpful. The folks at the Capitol left that map on the desk of every lawmaker on the floor, and it was broadcast on the screens in the chamber as well.

NC: Can you tell us a bit more about the Fund Georgia’s Future Coalition? And is there any work of the coalition that you’d like to highlight?

DB: Fund Georgia’s Future is a statewide coalition of partners focused on resource equity in the state of Georgia. If we're trying to build a coalition that's statewide, and also ideally has organizations who are grasstops, grassroots, educators, parents, local community members, leaders, everyone's going to be coming into this work at a different level. Funding issues are very complex on purpose, so I think it's a benefit that the coalition is focused solely on that. SEF is a steering committee member, as well as Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, and the steering committee drives the goals and ideas of the coalition.

At SEF, we are advocates for public education; we know that system is not perfect, but it's where the majority of students are educated. SEF is also pretty explicit in our mission when it comes to racial equity so we're able to bring that as a lens to the work as well. We’re also one of the only organizations on the steering committee that's regional. We’re able to bring in a regional perspective and say, “hey, this also happened in Arkansas, and here's what they did,” or in North Carolina, “they just expanded their voucher program, and it’s going to cost the state this much money.”

NC: Mason, is there anything else that you would like to say about Georgia Youth Justice Coalition's role on the Fund Georgia’s Future steering committee?

MG: I think the big thing for us is that it allows us to connect students to all the policy organizations. We have students on the ground in Gwinnett County, Cobb County, Fulton County, Savannah, Chatham County, wherever across the state. Then we're able to connect them to people like SEF, like IDRA, like GBPI, get them trained on how the public school they’re in right now is being funded, and explain how it can be improved. I think that's the big thing -- having a space where people on the ground can connect to policy experts and then understand the system themselves, because the more people we have understanding how public schools are actually funded, why vouchers are harmful, that's the place where we need to get to.

[Fund Georgia’s Future is part of the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights (PEER), a national network of organizers, advocates, lawyers and community leaders focused on reinvestment in public education, housed at Education Law Center.]

NC: We know other controversial education bills, including bills attacking public school curriculum and LGBTQ+ rights, have been introduced in the past several years in Georgia. What connections do you see between these bills and efforts to expand or create voucher programs in the state?

MG: The larger game here is to privatize education, and that's been the game since we saw the formation of charter schools and started these voucher programs. And then when we see these attacks on queer students, Black and Brown students, especially in terms of curriculum, that's just part of the game. Those bills, the “don't say gay” bills, the divisive concepts bills which have been introduced in our state, they are distractions from the real issues that are actually going on. While our public schools are hurting, while milestone testing is falling behind, while public schools are not getting the funding they need, we can point towards this crazy stuff instead of talking about the real issues. It's a way to split people who are for public education. And then once these laws pass, once they've taken over press coverage, it helps build momentum to pass voucher programs. And Fund Georgia’s Future gives us a space to say we're all public school advocates. We're just focused on funding. Leave all the other issues behind. We get at the root issue that they're trying to distract us from with all the other laws.

And then with the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, we’re the students being impacted by divisive concepts, by “don't say gay.” We have students across identities, across the political spectrum, and none of us want these bills because we're the ones that actually have to deal with the consequences of them while lawmakers are playing some sort of distraction game, not trying to fund public schools, trying to pass these vouchers. Our first teacher that got fired under our divisive concepts law was Katie Rinderle of Cobb County. She was fired despite recommendations to not fire her. She's appealing to the State Board of Education, and students showed up to those meetings consistently. Now there's probably going to be an ousting of the superintendent in Cobb County who has been imposing his will to get these harmful pieces of legislation through. And then there are the real issues in Cobb County, and students are showing up to the School Board talking about funding issues and how we need school buses. And that’s been really impactful because most people are going to agree with students who say “I had to wait 40 minutes for my school bus. Why hasn’t that been fixed? Why are we focused on keeping one book out of school?” That’s how we can advocate against these bills and find those connections for people.

DB: I think you made the connection very clear. We're going to put all of these things in your face - anti-LGBTQ, anti-trans, “don't say gay,” anti-Black history, anti-African American studies. And in the meantime, we're going to siphon away hundreds of millions of dollars from the public education system. I would say the overall goal is to destabilize the public education system, and the best way to destabilize a system is to erode trust in that system, and so that's what they're doing. The way they're doing it is by putting a magnifying glass on this very small group of people and extremist beliefs that are very harmful to queer people, people of color, people from low-income families, people who have disabilities, anyone who has an intersecting identity. They’re putting a magnifying glass on these views and saying, “Look at what's happening in your public school. Look at what your educators are teaching your students.” It’s all really harmful, false misinformation, and they're preying on folks to not understand the actual things that happen in the classroom, to not understand that educators go through preparation programs where they're trained to teach everything at an age appropriate level. They're also trying to give the illusion that parents don't have rights to know what's being taught in the classroom. That has never been the case. At any point, a parent can go to a school or to their child's teacher and say, “Hey I'm curious. What is it that you're teaching my kid today,” or “Can you give me your lesson plans?” The parents’ bill of rights piece has been pretty quiet now, but that was huge. The part that I think is really awful is that the educators are the collateral damage in this ploy. They're the ones that are going to get in trouble now for doing something they’ve done their entire life. We have to keep going back to a very affirmative narrative about what public education is able to do because that gets lost in all of the politics and misinformation. That's connected to vouchers because they're doing all this while they're also taking all the money away and saying, “This is what they’re teaching in your public school, and you won't get taught that at private school.”

NC: Mason, can you please speak to the importance of youth voices in public education advocacy? Can you also tell us a bit more about how the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition continues to build its base and engage with its members, and what strategies you’ve found to be most effective?

MG: The big thing is that we're the ones on the ground who are actually impacted by these policies, whether it's K-12 or higher education. We have to deal with the consequences of bad policy making. In terms of our work, we're talking to students; we're canvassing our campuses; we're getting students involved who are in our classes. It's direct relationship building. That's how we build our base. And then all the students who have been in the classroom with us or are coming from the same schools as us across the state, we're pulling them into spaces where they can learn from people who understand the policies really well. That’s been really impactful because then there's a bunch of students who understand how the legislature works, which isn't supposed to be an accessible thing for anyone who isn’t a lobbyist. We’re bringing in students who are going to be the future of the state, and they are able to get involved with this process really early on. A lot of the messaging that lawmakers use is about trying to protect and create better educational opportunity for students. And when we show up and say, “We actually are the students you're trying to protect, that you're trying to provide opportunity to. And we understand public education funding better than y'all because we're in the classroom and we've got that policy knowledge.” We show up with that energy at the Capitol, and all of a sudden they have to back off because they're going to lose the press game.

NC: Is there any advice that you would give to advocates, organizers or individual parents or community members working in other states?

DB: The first thing that I will say is you need community members. You need everyone, but especially community members. That means local educators, that means parents, that means folks who are the constituents of these lawmakers who vote for these bills. Those are the folks they're going to listen to. Messengers are incredibly important, and also the community needs to be in the know. Lawmakers are supposed to be representatives of the people that they're serving.

If you're going to have a coalition that's for public education and for the students that you're trying to serve, you need to make sure you have all those people represented in your coalition and in the know, because there’s power in numbers and power in people. Politics can win, but the people will win as long as you get them there. I think that's super important.

I also think strategy is incredibly important and being able to be flexible in that strategy and pivot when things happen. You might get a last-minute bill that comes out of nowhere, so being able to have information on the ready before session is important. That comes with those partnerships.

Know your representatives, even the ones that you don't necessarily agree with on everything, and have some form of a relationship because you never know who might be your ally. And I think it's very clear, too, who isn't going to be your ally, and that’s also important to know because you don't need to waste time trying to flip those folks. That’s what I would say the top three things are: you need people, you need strategy, and you need to know who your ally could be. And sometimes politics will win, so keep moving forward.

NC: Thank you. Mason, what about you?

MG: I think you can have the best looking map showing how the funding is moving, you can have the best policy memos, you can have all of these things, but if people aren't involved and paying attention, you're going to lose votes. Our biggest concern right now is that people who are for public education, anti-voucher, both Democrat and Republican, are going to get pushed out in the primaries by these groups coming in that have a lot of money. The best way we counter that is by talking to voters and talking to community members like Darian said. If they understand what's happening, if they understand that their representative is sticking up for them, taking a vote that's going to support their public schools, that's how we're actually going to win this fight. We have to get people across every single district across the state who all understand the policy impacts and understand what's going on down at the Capitol. We want them talking to lawmakers explaining if one of them lose their primary, and all of a sudden they have the votes, vouchers are going to go through.

DB: The last thing I would add is knowing how important local school board action and activity is. That's a huge way for individual parents and community members to be involved because state capitols are not always in people's backyards. You’re allowed to go to those school board meetings. You're allowed to read the budget and ask what's in the budget, and there’s power in that, too. It doesn't always have to start at the Capitol. Local is just as important.

NC: Is there anything else you'd like to share before we conclude this interview?

DB: I would just add that we know that we have a lot of work to do. The public education system right now is not perfect, but that's not the end of the statement. We're out here day in and day out trying to fight for the system that we know is obligated to, and can, serve every child that decides to walk through its doors. And we are going to work as hard as we can to ensure that the system remains beneficial and transformational and fruitful for every student. We want to build these systems up and not destroy them because without public education democracy goes. We need to be educating folks, and the main place in which we can do that is our public education system. No one can take away your education.

NC: Very well said. Mason, do you have anything that you'd like to add?

MG: We have to get more people involved who are going to be impacted by these policies. And I think if we can do that, we’ll win. The other thing is most people are already on our side. We just have to make that connection. Most people support public education and have experience with public education. We can bridge that gap between policy and political understanding. Nothing can stop us at that point.

Visit the Advocacy page of the PFPS website to read the other interviews in the series.

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