Opinion: Governor’s signature on school choice bill is good first step

Gov. Brian Kemp signs Senate Bill 233, known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, at Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Gov. Brian Kemp signs Senate Bill 233, known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, at Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (Natrice Miller/ AJC)

Education is one of the most powerful ways that kids connect with positive role models, ideas and skills that enable them to imagine and pursue meaningful, prosperous futures.

At the same time, these futures are evolving — and fast. Modern technology, new industries and new skills required for work mean that Georgia can no longer skate by having only 34% of fourth graders showing proficiency in math and 32% in reading on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Protecting this status quo is like asking someone to tread water with no rescue in sight. It’s the reality Georgia parents have dealt with for years while leaders have insisted that ZIP codes are the most crucial factor for determining education opportunity.

Thanks to the leadership of Georgia’s lawmakers in 2024, the tide has started to turn.

On Tuesday, Gov. Brian Kemp signed Senate Bill 233, the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, into law. The measure will make students from the lowest-performing 25% of public schools eligible to receive $6,500 a year set aside in an account. Parents can then use the funds to cover approved educational expenses, including private school tuition, books, uniforms and even transportation.

SB 233 also gives first priority to students from families below 400% of the federal poverty level — around $120,000 a year for a family of four. Students above that threshold will be allowed to participate if funds are left over after the lower-income students are served.

Randy Hicks

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

This bill will help shape an education system that honors every child’s unique situation and prevents a lack of quality education from locking children and communities into poverty. Georgia’s future depends on preparing these future generations for health, resilience and success in today’s world.

Part of what makes SB 233 so significant is that it recognizes kids stuck in failing public schools — many of whom are from low-income and impoverished situations — are part of Georgia’s future, too. In an education system that limits choice, they are the ones most at risk of being left behind, without the means to afford a school option suited to their unique needs.

Education savings accounts, like SB 233, are good policy because they give kids immediate help. We can’t wait for reforms that will take years or even decades to take hold. Every semester, our K-12 students have academic milestones they need to hit. And we know that when they don’t achieve these goals, they are more likely to fall further and further behind their peers, compromising their chances for upward mobility and locking them in poverty.

SB 233 provides immediate help by making Promise Scholarships available beginning with the 2025-26 school year. Because of the law’s parameters — particularly a cap on funding — Promise Scholarships will only be able to serve an estimated 21,500 kids initially.

Passing SB 233 is a laudable first step toward bolstering academic options. But if Georgia is serious about investing in our communities, we must close the education opportunity gap for more students.

Georgia’s neighboring states understand this imperative. We are now surrounded by states that are aggressively and urgently addressing the needs of future generations by adopting education savings accounts, or ESAs, that are open to all students. Alabama, Florida and North Carolina have recently enacted broad programs open to far more students. This should be the ultimate goal of our own ESA program to give our kids the best possible academic outcomes and opportunities for a flourishing life.

We are thankful to the many House and Senate lawmakers who recognized the urgency of the moment and passed Promise Scholarships to strengthen this key building block of a flourishing life. Georgia is now closer than ever to achieving a better vision for education in our state: every child able to access quality education without restrictions of income, race, ZIP code or other life circumstances.

Randy Hicks is president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Opportunity.