Opinion: Private school vouchers ultimately hurt Georgia students like me

A south Georgia student says school vouchers will not help his rural community and will divert state dollars from public education.  ( Bob Andres/AJC)

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

Credit: Bob Andres/AJC

A south Georgia student says school vouchers will not help his rural community and will divert state dollars from public education. ( Bob Andres/AJC)

If you’ve ever driven down I-75 to Disney or the beaches of Florida, you’ve most likely passed through or even stopped in the rural metropolis known as “Titletown USA,” and the home of the mighty Blazers of Valdosta State University. Valdosta is not high on many people’s destination lists, but, regardless of what you’ve heard about my community, those of us who grew up here are bound together by connections forged through public education.

As a student at our local public school, I learned with and from kids of all backgrounds. I enhanced my understanding of the world through our exchanges of ideas and opinions. In high school, my homeroom teacher would always remind us to “be the change we want to see in the world.” Her endless support inspired me to be a part of that change every day. I would not be where I am today were it not for teachers like her and the life skills learned and deep bonds built in my public school classrooms.

 Blake Robinson

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

Last week, SB 233, a private school voucher that would divert funding from Georgia’s public schools to provide $6,500 for a minority of K-12 students to attend unaccountable, unregulated private schools, was approved by the legislature. Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign it into law, and the bill could cost taxpayers as much as $140 million per year.

I witnessed some lawmakers give campaign speeches rather than actual support for the bill. Lawmakers pushing the bill spun tales about “rescuing” kids from struggling public schools, forgetting the vast majority of students who would be left behind with less resources and funding when they divest state funds to subsidize the private education of a small subset of Georgians. After all, the bill largely supports students who could afford to go to begin with. $6,500 is not enough to cover the $11,893 average yearly tuition of a Georgia private school, let alone the costs of transportation, fees, books, and other materials.

In rural Georgia in particular, private schools are few and far between, and the vast majority don’t provide free and accessible transportation the way public schools do. They also aren’t required to reveal accommodations they provide, meaning long and costly commutes that most students just can’t afford to make, especially without the necessities of services our public schools provide like free and reduced lunch. Fifty Georgia counties don’t even have a private school, and thirty-eight of those are rural counties.

In rural communities, public schools are essential spaces for bringing people together and finding common ground. When the taxes we pay to our state aren’t going toward our local schools, our students, educators, and communities suffer.

Without the 12 metro Atlanta counties, Georgia would rank in the bottom 10 states in the country for educational attainment. We know educational outcomes are strongly tied to the resources schools can provide as compared to those their students need.

That’s 147 Georgia counties lacking adequate funding to support their students, including all our rural counties, which experience unique issues like struggles with teacher retention and higher rates of child poverty. These challenges would only be made worse by SB 233, investing public dollars in private schools outside our communities.

Polling earlier this year revealed that 76.1% of Georgians support allowing additional funds for students living in poverty, while two-thirds oppose private school vouchers.

Instead of defunding public schools and giving up on the vast majority of young Georgians who would be left behind by an expanded private school voucher program, let’s use our unprecedented state budget surplus to strategically increase public education funding to support our struggling schools.

Let’s provide students in these schools with opportunities to better engage by passing legislation that establishes opportunity funding for low-income students. The bottom 25% of schools aren’t failing: they have been underfunded for decades, and lack the resources needed to support their students.

As a proud product of Georgia’s public schools and now a young taxpayer of this state, I know it’s a mistake to give up on the public education system that supported my peers and me through our formative years growing up in Lowndes County. We’ve trusted our public schools for almost 200 years and look at how far we’ve come.

Blake Robinson, a senior at Georgia Southern University, is a permanent resident of Lowndes County. He attended Lowndes County Public Schools and plans to return to Lowndes County to practice law in the future. Robinson is a member of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition and was a part of their efforts to defeat the bill last Thursday as it was being considered in the House.