Faces Behind School Choice are as Diverse as the Options Ahead

By Benita M. Dodd

More than 40,000 activities and events around the nation will celebrate National School Choice Week 2019, held from January 20-26. (One is the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s annual event on Tuesday at the Sloppy Floyd Towers, opposite the State Capitol. Find out more here.)

The events and activities underscore the need for choice in children’s education: No two children are alike. They learn in different ways, in different environments and at different paces, and their opportunity to achieve shouldn’t be limited by ZIP code or their parents’ paycheck.

The events showcase the options. These include public charter schools, which contract with their district or state authorizing agency, promising better results in exchange for greater flexibility than traditional public schools; tax-credit scholarships; education savings accounts (ESAs) and vouchers that give parents greater control of their child’s education and education services; private schools; online learning; hybrid models and the various disruptive transformations.

The events highlight the legislators and policy-makers who help or hinder choice.

Rarely do events focus on the quiet, individual commitments to children by Georgians in the shadows. These Georgians stand up for students and stand behind them. They challenge colleagues, motivate at-risk and low-income students, and invest their time and money to ensure success.

Georgia State Rep. Valencia Stovall shared her support of school choice with freshman legislators at the Georgia Charter Schools Association’s Legislative Breakfast this week.

Valencia Stovall is a Clayton County Democratic representative whose daughter was a charter school student. Stovall, recruited to the board of a failing Clayton charter school, realized the need for successful options. Her stalwart support makes her one of the few Democratic voices for choice in the Legislature.

“It’s not easy when you’re on the minority side on issues when it comes to children,” Stovall said recently.

“When you have to go back to your district and they say, ‘You’re a Democrat, and we see every time when it comes to charter schools, private schools, special needs scholarships and ESAs and such stuff you’re not voting with the Democratic Party.’

“I have to tell them I’m not down there as a Democrat. I’m there as a voice for our children and whatever is going to be best for them.

“Once they turn 18, the school system no longer cares about those kids. Once they become part of society, all of us have to take on the burden of re-educating them or trying to find a place for them in society. We have to get it right, from before they’re born all the way up to 12th grade.

“If that means I have stand by myself and take scars and bruises, so be it. I know I have done my part.”

Sunny Park mentors the students at the Youth ChalleNGe Academies, sharing his rags-to-riches life story; the YCA Foundation he founded provides support and scholarships.

Atlantan Sunny Park emigrated from South Korea with $300 in his pocket. A high-school dropout who gained his wealth by growing an office janitorial business, Park takes his civic obligation as an American citizen seriously. He shares his rags-to-riches story to mentor and inspire integrity in the at-risk students of the Youth ChalleNGe Academies (YCA), run by the National Guard.

It costs $90,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender. It costs $15,000 to save one dropout through the five-month YCA program, an alternative-school choice these students must make. “If Sunny Can, I Can,” is Park’s mantra. The YCA Foundation he founded in 1998 provides scholarships and support for these former dropouts, many of whom were just a hair’s-breadth from jail time. His leadership helps turn potential tax burdens into educated, productive citizens.

Francis Lott , shown here with junior and senior honor students at Coffee High School, reminds students seeking to benefit from the Georgia Tech scholarship he and his wife have endowed that to stand out, their applications must include extracurricular activities, too.



In 2014, Francis Lott, a Georgia Tech graduate and successful real estate developer in Douglas/Coffee County, and his wife, Diane, endowed $500,000 to the Georgia Tech Promise Scholarship Program. Established in honor of Tech’s past president, Douglas native Wayne Clough, his endowment targets Coffee County students who otherwise could not afford to attend.

While choice is more prevalent in higher education, lower-income K-12 students often believe such a choice as Tech is beyond their reach. Tech was especially not on the radar for many graduates in Lott’s rural community.

He began visiting local high schools to encourage students to apply. It soon became clear to him many students lacked the extracurricular activities to build a strong resume improving their acceptance chances at top universities.

Lott went further, taking his message to eighth-graders and stressing the importance of building a resume. He met with guidance counselors for the school system to make his case for Georgia Tech and ask them to encourage bright students from low-income families to apply.

Today, a record 15 Coffee County graduates are enrolled at Tech, four on full scholarships funded by Lott.

“I feel hugely rewarded by the experience, more even than the student recipients,” he says.

Tech honored Lott with the 2018 “Dean Griffin Community Service Award” at Georgia Tech’s Gold & White Honors Gala. He plans to attend the 2019 gala in February to support Jerry McTier, retired Tech Director of Financial Aid, who will be recognized among 2019 Honorary Alumni and who signed off on each of the four Coffee scholarships. Lott has invited the four students as his guests.

“I’ll send a limo to pick them up,” Lott proclaims with pride. “They deserve it. So does Jerry McTier.”

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 18, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.