• Commentary

Who will emerge as Georgia’s school choice champion?

Add this question to the list of uncertainties heading into the 2023 legislative session: Who will emerge as Georgia’s school choice champion?

Educational freedom has been on quite a roll in recent years – in other states. West Virginia passed the nation’s most expansive choice program in 2021. Arizona surpassed the Mountain State last year, creating the first truly universal school-choice program in the United States. Courts cleared the way for new or expanded programs in Maine and Tennessee. Programs were bolstered in North Carolina and restored in Virginia. And bills advanced in states as politically diverse as Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

Progress has been slower here.

Proposals to establish education scholarship accounts stalled in both the House and the Senate over the past four years. More equitable funding for charter schools has grown only in tiny increments, relative to growth of education funding overall. Even a fairly broad expansion of the Special Needs Scholarship has had a muted impact, due to bureaucratic hurdles for families trying to access it.

One bright spot of late was a $20 million increase, to a total of $120 million, in the cap for Georgia’s tuition tax-credit scholarship program that legislators approved last year. That technically met a campaign promise for Gov. Brian Kemp, who back in 2018 said he would double the cap. When he made the promise, the cap was $58 million – although by the time he took office, lawmakers had already boosted it to $100 million.

Still, even at the relatively low average scholarship amount of $4,292 in the last year for which data are available (2021), that means only a few thousand additional students will benefit from the most recent increase. Going all the way to $200 million, which was on the table last year, would have helped far more students.

It’s worthwhile to help even one child get a better education, of course. But for a comparison, consider Florida. With a population about twice the size of Georgia’s, Florida serves roughly six times as many students as Georgia through its various private-choice programs, and about five times as many students via public charter schools. Florida’s public school students also vastly outperform ours – despite what school-choice opponents, with their doom and gloom predictions, would have you believe.

The growth in Florida – like the creation of new programs in Arizona, West Virginia and elsewhere – has resulted from years of continual effort by policymakers. When public sentiment swung in favor of school choice after the problems of remote learning during the pandemic, they were ready to act.

Georgia, simply put, didn’t rise to that occasion.

But the moment hasn’t passed. It’s not too late. It will, however, require a champion to step forward and lead the way.

In most states those champions tend to be Republicans, who typically are more skeptical of government-run institutions and more inclined to embrace competition as a way to improve services. Democratic lawmakers, with a few notable exceptions, tend to fall in line with the demands of the unions and educational establishment, which are key political allies of theirs. And because those groups are more concerned with adults than with kids, they overwhelmingly oppose school choice.

That said, school choice most often benefits minority students and low-income students – groups that Democrats claim to represent. So this is an opportunity either for Georgia Democrats to embrace a solution that appeals to their constituents, or for Georgia Republicans to reach out to new blocs of voters.

Ideally, for the sake of Georgia’s students, we would see members of both parties come together to champion this issue. Just as Democrats and Republicans alike have supported full funding of K-12 education, both parties should support giving students options when their assigned public school doesn’t meet their needs.

There have been, and remain, supporters of school choice in the General Assembly.

But what students and families need is someone to take the lead and truly expand their options.

Who’s it going to be?