Opinion: Georgia needs to widen schooling choices in 2024

Parents should be able to direct public school dollars as they best see fit for their kids.

The year is only half over, but 2023 has already been a banner year for the expansion of educational opportunity for students in other states across America.

Georgia was so close to being one of them, but we fell short. More on that later.

Seven states have enacted laws that create universal — or near universal — access for all students in 2023: Ohio, Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Indiana. That’s on top of West Virginia and Arizona, which did so in 2021 and 2022, respectively. Other states have made strides toward universal access as well, including Ohio as a more recent example.

Buzz Brockway leads the conservative group, the Georgia Center for Opportunity

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

Each state has its own version of a scholarship or educational savings account that the state funds for children’s needs outside of traditional public school. For example, these types of accounts send a portion of each student’s public school dollars to allow the child to attend a private school of their family’s choice. In some cases, families who choose to homeschool their children can use the funds for educational expenses.

In Indiana, for example, the state’s scholarship program will now be available to any family below 400% of the amount required to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. That translates to a salary of around $222,000 a year for a family of four.

Previously, requirements were in place that further limited the program, such as it only being open to families with students previously enrolled in a public school or to children in the foster care system. Under the new law, only an estimated 3.5% of Indiana’s families won’t qualify for this option.

Meanwhile, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed a bill into law that eventually expands that state’s scholarship program to families at or below 200% of full- and reduced-priced lunch as well. The program is more limited in scope than Indiana’s. It will only be available to 5,000 students the first year, 10,000 the second year and 15,000 students the third year.

South Carolina’s program allows for the establishment of Educational Scholarship Trust Funds. Funds deposited in these accounts can be used not only for expanded school choice, but may also be used for special needs therapies, such as physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy. Tutors and transportation may also be included for families caring for special needs students.

Now to Georgia. State lawmakers had a prime opportunity to add our state to this growing list that recognizes the importance of families having educational options. Unfortunately, we fell short.

Senate Bill 233, also known as the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, would have made $6,500 per student available for parents to direct toward the best educational approaches for their children. The funds would have been eligible for use as private school tuition and public school alternatives, such as homeschooling.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, families who qualified would have had students enrolled into the lower 25% of schools in Georgia. This amounted to roughly 400,000 students.

SB 233 was a strong bill, passing the Senate with unanimous Republican support and going on to the House. Despite receiving no support from Senate Democrats, it’s excellent news that the bill made it so far through legislative proceedings.

The House vote proved to be tougher, with bipartisan representatives voting against it. Rep. Mesha Mainor of Atlanta was the lone Democrat in the House to vote in favor. On its final day of session, SB 233 was only six votes short of the 91 it needed to pass.

The good news is that the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act is eligible for reconsideration during the 2024 legislative session. Lawmakers can’t let another year pass without giving control back to parents.

Public education is a foundational and vital part of the success of American society, but an increasing number of families are looking toward alternatives — and their choices are just as valid. We must work to deliver quality education to all students, which means finding ways to support families who take a different schooling path. While many will access their education through public schools, not all kids are a perfect fit for that system and they cannot be left behind.

Buzz Brockway is executive vice president of public policy at the Georgia Center for Opportunity. He is a former Georgia state representative and is chair of the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia.