More education options good for Georgia students, families

A promise kept late is better than a promise broken.

Georgia lawmakers have considered creating promise scholarship accounts, or something like them, for about a decade now. These accounts would help defray educational expenses for students who leave the public school system.

They’re similar to the programs – known more broadly as education savings accounts – that are sweeping the nation. West Virginia and Arizona blazed the trail in recent years, building upon narrower programs in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Tennessee. This year alone has seen lawmakers in Iowa and Utah create new ESAs, while their counterparts in Arkansas, Oklahoma and South Carolina have advanced bills out of at least one legislative chamber. There also have been proposals in Ohio, Texas, Virginia and maybe elsewhere – it’s hard to keep up.

Now Georgia is getting in on the act, thanks to state Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Cumming. His Senate Bill 233 would establish $6,000 promise scholarship accounts. They would be open to the vast majority of Georgia students, although lawmakers would have to decide how many of them to fund each year. 

This is the kind of flexible opportunity that families have long sought, a desire only heightened by the experience of the pandemic. Generations have passed since this many parents have taken a hands-on approach to their children’s education. 

And no wonder: Having options may never have been more possible – or more important.

Culture wars have dominated educational discussions over the past couple of years, covering how teachers should talk about everything from race to sex. No matter which side a school ends up taking, parents who disagree should have the option and means to send their children elsewhere.

Similarly, progress in improving public schools has varied widely. There were 22 elementary schools in Georgia last year in which at least three-quarters of third-grade students couldn’t read on grade level – and another 68 schools where two-thirds of third-graders had fallen behind.

There were 10 middle schools where 0% of eighth-graders – not one child – scored as proficient at math. In another 28, no more than 5% of eighth-grade math students were on grade level.

These terrible stories happen all across the state: in urban communities, in suburban communities and in rural communities.

Opponents of options like promise scholarship accounts say we just “need more time” to fix these broken schools. I thought of that refrain when I saw a recent headline from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“Schools where Jimmy Carter got political start still seek improvement.”

“Carter,” the article went on to say, “joined the Sumter County School Board in 1955.”

That was nearly 70 years ago. Are parents in such poorly performing schools supposed to keep waiting while their children get their only shot at receiving an education?

There are as many reasons to choose a particular school as there are children, and that’s the real point. Every child is different, with different needs. While some public schools are failing almost all of their students, others are serving most of their students well.

But if some students aren’t being served well, why not give them another option?

While private schools or homeschooling – or the increasingly popular combinations of the two – might be the options of today for promise scholarship students, merely expanding options could actually bring public schools back into the mix.

After all, if a public school is especially good at teaching a particular subject, why not let students choose to take that subject at that school – while taking other classes elsewhere? There’s no reason public schools couldn’t specialize in certain aspects of education and capitalize on those strengths. There’s just no framework, much less incentive, for them to do so today.

Just since this debate began a decade ago, the possibilities in education have grown dramatically. That’s true outside Georgia as well, and lawmakers there are working swiftly to make sure their students don’t get left behind.

That can be true in Georgia, too.

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