Survey: Gwinnett favors school choice, vouchers

ATLANTA - A prominent advocate for educational reform on Thursday likened Georgia's school systems to eight-track players in an iPod world.

Georgia State Senator Eric Johnson unveiled his "blueprint" for future educational legislation, a philosophy steeped in the idea that parents should be able to choose which schools their children attend.

Johnson, who authored Georgia's Special Needs Scholarship program, equated geographically determined placement of students to a monopolistic system orchestrated by strong-arm government. He referenced survey data that proves most of metro Atlanta, including Gwinnett, agrees with him, he said.

"It's all about freedom," Johnson told a conference of education leaders at Georgia Tech. "Clearly the public is ready for a change from the status quo."

Johnson believes that allowing student choice would breed healthy competition between both public and private schools. He pointed to active programs proven successful for 190,000 students in 14 states, including cities such as Washington, D.C.

Under the choice system, parents would have to sign a contract stipulating that transferred students would exhibit good behavior and strong academic performance, Johnson said. The system would rely on vouchers for parents of children in chronically failing schools.

The vouchers would act as scholarships that allow parents to send children to the public or private school of their choice. Johnson said the first step of his plan is to determine the potential costs of the choice system and "fund it without excuses."

An independent poll of 600 metro Atlanta voters in late June showed 69 percent favor the voucher system, Johnson said. Gwinnett's support was slightly less at 64 percent.

Johnson's announcement came at an event marking the 96th birthday of Milton Friedman, the late Nobel laureate economist who founded the school choice movement.

"I think Georgia can have the best school system in the world, not just in the United States," Johnson said. "This is about making public schools better."