ATLANTA – This is part of the America's Future series airing on FOX News Channel, looking at the challenges facing the country in the 21st century.
Georgia is becoming the next battleground in the school voucher debate.
Republican State Senator Eric Johnson plans to introduce legislation in January 2009 that would give each public school student a voucher equal to the money the state currently spends on his or her education. The voucher could be used for tuition at the parents' school of choice -- public, private or religious.
The system would force public grade schools to compete for students and teachers, much like America's institutions of higher learning.
"Foreign students flock to the United States for college and university education," Johnson said. "You don't see anybody knocking on the doors to send their child over here for primary or secondary education."
Introduced in 1955 by American economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, school vouchers are rooted in basic free-market theory. But the free market also involves risk, and voucher opponents say America should not gamble with taxpayer dollars when it comes to something as fundamental as childhood education.
"I wouldn't support them in Georgia until and unless we are adequately funding our public schools," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, a non-union group that advocates on behalf of 72,000 teachers, administrators and school support personnel. "Then we might talk about choices."
Callahan says voucher programs in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., have failed to deliver promised results, and Georgia lawmakers should focus on strengthening public schools instead of creating incentives to leave them.
"If you want to go to a private or religious school in Georgia, you'll do it on your own dime," he said. "And I think that's as it should be."
But Senator Johnson says competition is vital to spur innovation in public education — which he calls "the last monopoly of government."
"Food stamps — we don't tell you, 'You have to go to a certain grocery store.' But in education, if you don't have money, then it's where you live that determines where you go to school. And that's not necessarily in the best interest of the child," said Johnson.
While vouchers are sometimes criticized as a subsidy for the rich, Johnson's proposal would provide no funding to students already enrolled in private schools.
Johnson says the economic downtown requires the state to stay within existing public school budgets — but where the money goes would be up to parents.