Opinion: Atlanta Democrat who switched parties showed heart for students

State Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, a Democrat who later switched to the Republican Party, speaks during morning orders in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

State Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, a Democrat who later switched to the Republican Party, speaks during morning orders in the House of Representatives at the Capitol in Atlanta on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Denisha Allen is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and a school choice beneficiary.

As a student, Allen used the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program to leave public school for private school. She has appeared with former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on stage to advocate for expanded choice options.

DeVos founded the American Federation for Children, which lobbies for school choice and supports political candidates who seek to expand programs. Allen created the pro-school choice network Black Minds Matter, which is a project of the American Federation for Children Growth Fund.

By Denisha Allen

Over the years, Georgia students — particularly minority students — have faced serious struggles. From 2019 to 2022, math scores for Georgia eighth graders dropped 8 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Among Black students, only 19% of eighth graders are deemed proficient in reading and 11% in math.

Schools in Atlanta are below statewide levels. Yet, while academic outcomes have declined, funding has risen. More money has not been a solution for the schools that are failing students. Atlanta Public Schools spends on average $22,000 per student, according to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, even though they have failed to deliver consistent results for students, especially lower-income Black children. Although Georgia offers some options for students whose assigned public school is failing them, including charter schools and scholarships to private schools, options are limited.

Increasingly, Georgia is an outlier on this front.

In neighboring Florida, lawmakers have increased the number of school options for the state’s students. A common refrain among choice opponents is that expanding non-district options will hurt students who remain in district schools, but Florida’s experience shows that has not been the case. Florida fourth graders ranked among the top 10 states in math and reading NAEP scores last year.

Ironically, even as school choice goes more mainstream than ever, both in terms of enacted policies and public support, the Democratic Party is saying no to expanding school options for students in Georgia. That is, all but a single Democrat.

Denisha Allen

Credit: Contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: Contributed

Earlier this year, state Rep. Mesha Mainor was the only member of her party to vote for a voucher bill that ultimately died in the Georgia House after passing the Senate along party lines. Georgia Democrats were not pleased, to say the least, with one colleague soon posting a blank check to whoever would mount a primary challenge.

Mainor was undaunted. “Some of my colleagues will say that parents who are marginalized are not capable of making decisions for themselves,” she said at a press conference. “That’s a slap in the face to the people I represent.”

It’s clear from achievement scores that Atlanta families in Mainor’s district need more education options, and she was doing her job as a legislator by trying to give them precisely what they need. But tension with her party only intensified, and so Mainor made the decision to change political parties.

It’s not clear how many like Mainor will go as far as switching parties, but on school choice, it is obvious that the Democratic Party is badly out of touch with its constituency, notably voters in the Black community, whose interests it claims to support.

Consistently throughout polls and through the years, Black Americans have supported school choice, including in a 2022 Harvard survey.

For every negative comment, Mainor says she has received hundreds of letters, emails and phone calls from individuals in her district in support of her switch. Still, it is clear that Mainor faces especially tough odds as she will now be running for reelection in a deep blue district as a Republican.

Fighting for free minds and opportunity takes courage. It takes doing something different. Leaders in the Democratic Party see themselves as the party for Black Americans, but actions speak louder than words, and increasingly, this issue will be hard for party leaders to ignore.

Students — especially minority students — need opportunity. They don’t deserve to be a political football.