The state of school choice in Georgia

Georgia will join several other states in recognizing National School Choice Week next week. Gov. Brian Kemp declared “School Choice Week in Georgia” to coincide with thousands of events nationwide following back-to-back 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.

Arizona passed one of the nation’s most comprehensive school choice bills last year. Tennessee and West Virginia saw school choice policies triumph in both legislative and legal battles. These and several other states passed legislation to expand access to choice, increase eligibility for choice programs and improve transparency, all of which strengthened the cause of educational freedom.

While we may regret the lack of action in Georgia, perhaps the governor’s endorsement of School Choice Week at least signals interest in renewing such action.

For now, the prospect of 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 education scholarship account (ESA, and altered versions of that abbreviation). While states like Arizona have dramatically increased eligibility for ESAs, Georgia’s initiatives to provide this service, which would have been a huge boost for educational choice, have been unsuccessful.

There is much we can learn from Georgia’s ill-fated ESA bill, not the least of which is the fact that school choice is not an issue neatly divided along party lines.

Special Needs Scholarship

School choice in Georgia is not 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 115 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. Perhaps a governor in his second term might prove more gung ho in the fight for educational freedom. 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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