Opinion: Forget boards of education. Push lawmakers for school choice

In August, parents, students and supporters rallied against Gwinnett County Public Schools' decision to make all fall instruction online-only due to rising COVID-19 infections. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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In August, parents, students and supporters rallied against Gwinnett County Public Schools' decision to make all fall instruction online-only due to rising COVID-19 infections. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Choice advocate: Pandemic ignited parent activism and demand for change

Christy Riggins is the Georgia director for the American Federation for Children, the group founded by the family of former U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to promote vouchers and other school choice initiatives.

In this guest column, Riggins says parent frustration with school boards rose during the pandemic, sparking demand for flexible options for their children’s education.

By Christy Riggins

Across our country, parents are realizing that too many students aren’t getting what they need at their neighborhood public schools. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed weaknesses in the system’s ability to respond to unique situations. Now a growing army of Georgia’s frustrated moms and dads, feeling ignored and fearing their children’s academic regression, are protesting at local school boards in waves.

Their plea is clear: Put our students first. Too often, their cries fall on deaf ears.

Parent frustration with the education system has reached new highs in 2021, and the majority of that energy has been directed toward school boards. School board politics became a national story throughout the Virginia elections last fall, and in Georgia, parents have turned to school boards to protect students from “sexualized content” in some schools’ libraries and online materials.

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Christy Riggins is the Georgia director for the American Federation for Children.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Christy Riggins is the Georgia director for the American Federation for Children.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Christy Riggins is the Georgia director for the American Federation for Children.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Historically, change has not come through school board reforms. In places like Los Angeles and Denver, school boards have resisted any sort of change. Back in 2010, the Los Angeles school board shirked the recommendations of its top experts by turning its back on reform-backed charter applicants. In Denver, even when reformers had power, their work was undermined and eventually ended by the dollars of the teachers’ unions.

It’s time to get off this hamster wheel. The preferences of parents have rarely won over the decrees of a bloated and self-concerned education system.

Rather than playing whack-a-mole every time a government-beholden classroom violates your personal values or fails to provide an adequate education for your child, it’s your right to take the God-given power you have as a parent to choose your kid’s educational environment. No parent with the best interest of their child should have to fight an uphill battle against a hostile bureaucracy.

Parents must now insist that the Georgia General Assembly provide a solution once and for all. In Georgia, tax dollars should follow students into a different classroom if their needs aren’t being met. When public schools ignore a family’s needs, they deserve the option to take their kids where they will be better served.

House Bill 999 is one such solution. Under consideration by Georgia lawmakers, the bill would provide families with $6,000 “Promise Scholarships” to use toward a flexible menu of education options if their zoned school is not working for them. Unlike traditional vouchers, which can only be used toward private school tuition, Promise Scholarships can also be used toward homeschooling programs, special needs therapies, cost of transportation to a new school, curriculum and more. In a world full of customization, Promise Scholarships would allow Georgia’s kids to receive an innovative education, tailored to their specific needs.

School boards count on parents to grow tired, frustrated and, ultimately passive and forgetful. So far, boards have shown that they cannot and will not make the wide, sweeping changes in the education system that families want. Our state now leads the nation in business creation, college football and many other fronts. The General Assembly can and should make Georgia No. 1 for education freedom. Promise Scholarships would be a giant stride in that direction.

Virginia parents rallied to Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor after his opponent Terry McAuliffe said parents should not be telling schools what to teach. This marked a major event in national politics and proved that parents maintain real political power.

Leaders in other states have taken notice. Riding unprecedented levels of support for education freedom, 23 states passed legislation to expand, improve or create new school choice programs this year. Hundreds of thousands of additional students will have access to an education that fits their needs, and no family should be left out.

These victories did not come through school board reform, but through parent voices, emphatically and unapologetically demanding lawmakers support their right to choose the best educational path for their kids. Now that Georgia’s lawmakers have begun 2022′s legislative session, parents in our state have the greatest chance of empowerment by focusing their attention where the highest chance of success lies. That means forgetting about school boards and contacting state legislators.

The first step for Georgia parents wanting more control over their child’s education is to call their state legislators today and demand support for Promise Scholarships.