Opinion: Legalized gambling would be win for Georgia literacy efforts

Natalie Crawford is a native Georgian, lifelong Republican and former two-term Habersham County commissioner. In a guest column, Crawford urges the Georgia Legislature to put sports wagering and horse racing to a public referendum, which she contends voters would endorse if assured the proceeds would benefit education.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported, Gov. Brian Kemp has said he would work with legislative leaders this year on a measure to allow sports betting — something he previously opposed.

Earlier this month, the AJC’s Maya T. Prabhu reported: “Expanding gambling in Georgia has historically been difficult to do because it requires amending the state constitution — allowed only once two-thirds of each legislative chamber agrees to place it on a ballot and a majority of voters approve the change. But lawmakers are emboldened by a recent memo from former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold D. Melton in which he said he did not believe a constitutional amendment is needed for the state to allow legal online sports betting and that it should be considered an extension of the state lottery.”

Crawford says a constitutional amendment provides the best opportunity for early childhood education funding, including the expansion of the Child Care and Parent Services or CAPS program. In 2022, Crawford founded Georgia First to advance economic opportunity and health outcomes for all Georgians. Georgia First is a center-right organization dedicated to building strong faith-based and community coalitions, limiting government overreach, promoting fiscal responsibility and advancing individual liberty.

By Natalie Crawford

As a lifelong fiscal conservative, I appreciate the General Assembly’s continued efforts to not grow government by expanding services or creating new programs that don’t have an existing or new funding source. However, I also know that education is an investment and by not fully investing in our children’s education from cradle to career, we are creating long-lasting financial impacts for our state.

Former Gov. Zell Miller was right, as goes education, so goes the state. We either invest today or we’re destined to pay later — through higher unemployment and underemployment rates, added juvenile justice and adult corrections costs, and increased reliance upon social programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

Natalie Crawford

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

We at Georgia First applaud Gov. Brian Kemp’s FY2024 budget proposal — fully funding QBE; delivering additional teacher raises; and providing a historic increase for Georgia Pre-K providers, the second-highest investment in the 25-year history of the program. These are the types of investment we can and should be making as the No. 1 state to do business for nine consecutive years. This investment in education is what’s required to maintain that economic position and deliver a literate and skilled workforce.

However, we can’t deliver this future workforce when we’re consistently ranked in the bottom 10 or lower for literacy. By investing in education, we’re tackling critical literacy issues and growing Georgia’s middle class. Education is not only the key to success, but it is a fundamental solution to generational poverty.

Georgia First believes we must invest fully and invest earlier by prioritizing and adequately funding early childhood education programs. Research shows that our brains grow faster between the ages of 0 and 3 than at any other point in our lives. The science of early brain development provides a road map for early childhood education investments; Georgia simply has to prioritize its existing revenues and proactively seek new funding sources. We’re clearly on the right path with the governor’s budget proposal and a mutual literacy focus in both the Georgia House and the Senate, but we can’t stop there.

Sports wagering has the potential to do for early childhood education what the lottery and HOPE Scholarship program did for higher education in 1992. Millions of dollars are leaving the state each year, and projected estimates show legalized sports betting could generate approximately $50 million to $75 million in revenue annually. Revenue that, if solely dedicated to education could transform our state and its families for generations.

Dedicating sports wagering revenues to first fully funding HOPE and pre-K, followed by direct investment in our state’s most vulnerable families, those served under the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning’s CAPS scholarship program, has the potential to dramatically improve Georgia’s poor literacy rates. Prioritizing these funds for education can help better prepare students for kindergarten, improve long-term secondary educational outcomes, and increase college graduation rates.

The Georgia Legislature has thoroughly debated gambling and all its forms for almost a decade. It’s time to allow Georgia voters to make the final decision. Georgia First believes a majority of Georgians would support a constitutional amendment for sports wagering and horse racing, if they had assurances that it would be entirely dedicated to advancing the educational opportunities for Georgia’s children.