Will Georgia join the growing number of states expanding education options?

There’s a saying at the Gold Dome that no bill is ever dead until the Speaker and the Lieutenant Governor slam their gavels and yell “Sine Die!” This being the first session in a two-year term, bills in limbo this year can survive until 2024.

Still, the way things have shaped up in 2023 – in Georgia and in other states – lawmakers will leave a big impression – here and elsewhere – with the way they handle one important bill.

Senate Bill 233 would establish Promise Scholarship Accounts, bringing Georgia in line with a growing number of states that are helping parents exercise options for their children. It’s an idea that has been percolating here since 2015.

It’s an idea that won’t die if SB 233 doesn’t make it to the governor’s desk this year. But legislators need to ask themselves what, exactly, they are waiting for.

The sponsors of these bills have compromised in every way possible. They have given here, there and everywhere. The opponents won’t come around.

But the need for Georgia’s children is too great to let the opponents win.

SB 233 began as a “universal” choice bill, meaning all children were eligible, although funding wouldn’t be available for all. (More on that in a moment.) The Senate limited it to children assigned to schools ranked in the bottom 25% of the state, according to performance on state assessments.

Other states such as West Virginia, Arizona, Iowa, Utah and Arkansas have approved universal choice bills. Similar legislation is advancing in Oklahoma, Texas, South Carolina and Florida.

However, Georgia’s bill would still reach numerous families due to our state’s relatively large population. With projected enrollment next year of more than 1.74 million public school students, we could be talking about some 400,000 eligible children depending on how the list is drawn. That stacks up well next to Arkansas (statewide enrollment of 486,000), Iowa (506,000) and West Virginia (253,000) in terms of impact.

Of course, not all 400,000 would receive scholarships because there won’t be that much funding. Opponents have tossed around some huge dollar figures due to their misunderstanding – or is it a misrepresentation? – of the law.

Contrary to their scare stories, current private school students would not be eligible. We can stop talking about giving money to 150,000 children who already opted out of the public schools.

Nor does the bill offer any kind of blank check to eligible students, not that you’d know that from listening to opponents. It would cover as many students as legislators agreed to fund in the budget.

At $6,000 per scholarship, we would be talking about 1,000 students if there were a budget of $6 million, or 10,000 with a budget of $60 million. With constant projections of declining state revenues, you can forget about the wild-eyed predictions of a billion, or even half a billion, dollars.

Finally, those lawmakers who are worried about their next election would do well to push the bill through this year.

Why? If the bill is passed this year, then next year those lawmakers could be hearing from constituents whose families are benefiting from a new option. What’s more, the parade of horribles that opponents always conjure will have proven to be a mirage.

We hear the same thing every time the General Assembly offers a new option for families. Predictions of doom for public schools came in 2007 with the creation of the Special Needs Scholarship, in 2008 with approval of the tax-credit scholarship program, in 2012 when the state charter schools constitutional amendment was ratified, and every time any of these programs was enhanced along the way. 

Somehow, some way, public schools have kept the doors open. Maybe that’s because they enjoy higher funding per pupil than ever before. It will be no different if Promise Scholarship Accounts come to be.

I’d call it a leap of faith, but we’re simply talking about walking further along a well-trodden path. Why put off until tomorrow what can be done today?

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