The state of school choice in Georgia

Georgia joins several other states in recognizing National School Choice Week this week. Gov. Brian Kemp declared “School Choice Week in Georgia” to coincide with thousands of events nationwide following several years that saw the advancement of school choice policies.

Most of that advancement, however, took place outside of Georgia.

Georgia was once a leader in school choice policy, but the state recently took a backseat as other states made significant strides. Harmful policies arose from the bureaucratic response to COVID-19 demonstrated to many parents the importance of freedom in education and a need for greater decision-making power among families.

2021 was labeled by many the “year of school choice.” However, this designation may have been premature, as 2023 saw even more expansions across 20 states. What’s more, every state that shares a border with Georgia expanded educational freedom last year.

South Carolina plans to launch an education scholarship account (ESA) program in 2024, and Florida converted existing tax credit and voucher programs into ESAs open to every student in the state looking for a non-public option. North Carolina expanded its Opportunity Scholarship program to all K-12 students and Tennessee expanded access to its ESA pilot program launched in 2021

Like Georgia, Alabama did not pass ESAs, but it did pass two education bills including an expansion of a scholarship program for low income students to attend public or private schools.

While we regret the lack of progress in Georgia, we appreciate the governor’s endorsement of School Choice Week and hope it signals continued determination in pushing for reform.

For now, School Choice Week seems an appropriate time to examine the state of educational freedom in Georgia, recount our past efforts and note opportunities for progress.

One of the most popular policies in the school choice movement is the ESA (and altered versions of that abbreviation). By now, many states have dramatically increased eligibility for ESAs. Last year, Georgia’s version (The Georgia Promise Scholarship Act) passed the Senate but failed in the House. This legislation was recommitted, however, and will be considered again in this year’s legislative session.

Special Needs Scholarship

School choice in Georgia is by no means a story of failure, however. It has been marked more so by limited successes and opportunities for improvement. For instance, Georgia recently expanded its Special Needs Scholarship to allow money to be spent on private schools. This was a win for some of Georgia’s most vulnerable kids and disadvantaged families, but many other families could benefit from greater access and freedom to use education funds.

Qualified Education Expense Credit

Georgia has a Qualified Education Expense Credit proven to improve student achievement and engagement and increase parental involvement and satisfaction. However, demand for contributions to this program has historically been greater than the number of students it serves. Expanding this cap would provide opportunities for hundreds of Georgians, especially considering that the entire amount is almost always claimed, even in years when the cap is raised.

Charter schools

Another area for improvement is in Georgia’s charter school system. Georgia currently has 105 charter schools that offer innovative curricula not typical of public schools. Charter schools are a good option for parents who might want a more specialized education for their children, but unequal funding is a major barrier for Georgia’s charters. Charter programs generally have more trouble funding their facilities than public schools, and that disadvantage is compounded by higher levels of accountability than their public counterparts.

Finally, Georgia legislators have shown some interest in reforming the state’s Quality Basic Education funding formula for the first time in nearly four decades. This process is considered a lengthy and confusing task, and it is currently unknown how seriously lawmakers will pursue reform. However, we need only to look to our neighbors to the north to see a possible recipe for success. Tennessee recently changed its funding formula to a student-based model.

Whether Georgia’s recognition of School Choice Week signals anything on the policy front remains to be seen. While Georgia has had some success, it would be a shame not to capitalize on the momentum the school choice movement has seized nationwide.

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