Georgia students now have a Promise

At long last, Georgia’s students have a Promise.

The state Senate this past week sent the Promise Scholarship Act to Gov. Brian Kemp, days after their colleagues in the House approved a modified version of the bill.

As with many past votes on school-choice measures, the legislation received the bare minimum 91 votes needed to advance from the House. But that narrowest of margins belies the strong public support for such programs that shows up in almost every opinion poll, transcending all the usual demographic, partisan and geographic lines.

A brighter future awaits thousands of students who currently lack access to an education that meets their needs. But given that this success took 10 years to realize, one last look back is in order.

A number of things have changed since 2015, when then-Rep. Mark Hamilton introduced the first version, and 2023, when Senate Bill 233 began its journey. Among them:

  • The state increased K-12 spending by more than $3 billion per year, or about 40%, even though enrollment grew by only 1%.
  • Per pupil spending across all sources (local, state and federal) grew by about 58%, to more than $14,000 annually on average.
  • The performance of Georgia students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, aka the Nation’s Report Card, remained flat relative to other states.
  • Student achievement scores on that test declined – a trend that predates the pandemic.

Nevertheless, opponents’ objections were consistent. Oh, the rhetoric evolved, if that’s the right word: We went from educrats defending public schools by comparing them to rutabagas, to objecting to letting students leave public schools because sometimes there are rats in the ceiling. (No, I am not making this up.)

Still, the basic arguments remained the same:

  • Public schools haven’t been getting enough funding, despite the above facts.
  • Public schools are both perfectly good – again, despite those facts – and also extremely vulnerable to students leaving en masse if given more options.
  • Students can’t take advantage of Promise Scholarships because alternatives either don’t exist or are too expensive. But also, passing the bill will devastatingly “defund” public schools because so many students would leave for those non-existent, unaffordable options. (Insert eyeroll here.)

In response to these criticisms and more, sponsors of the legislation changed its contours over time.

Hamilton’s initial proposal had no eligibility requirement, except that a student had been enrolled in a public school.

Program enrollment would have been limited to 0.5% of public-school enrollment statewide in the first year, 1% in the second year, and would have been unlimited thereafter.

Over time, limits were placed on student eligibility, settling finally on students zoned for the bottom 25% of schools by performance. The size of the program wound up capped at 1% of spending on public schools – a number decried as crippling while being, self-evidently, anything but.

In the end, these changes were simply an exercise in proponents negotiating with themselves. The legislative champions of the bill knew this but were forced to soldier on in this direction by the momentum of the debate.

Down the road, lawmakers seeking to improve the program should remember there is no placating these opponents.

Not when the opponents are ideologically committed to a single way of doing things. Ironically, they will turn around and accuse the people trying to allow multiple ways of doing things of being the ideologues.

Many lawmakers pushed through it all to bring us to this day. The list could be much longer, but at a bare minimum it includes Sen. Greg Dolezal and Lt. Gov. Burt Jones from the Senate; Speaker Jon Burns, Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones and Rep. Todd Jones from the House; and of course, Gov. Brian Kemp. Each of them, and others who remain unsung for today, played a crucial role.

Georgia’s students will come to thank them. That’s a promise.

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