Opinion: This pandemic may trigger a renewed debate over school choice

08/28/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Howard Middle School 8th graders Jude Paulson (left) and Jahson Johnsons (right) listen as their POD supervisors Ashli Colbert (not pictured) tells them that their lunch is en-route as they learn from home through virtual classes out of Howard Middle School in Atlanta, Friday, August 28, 2020. The students are participating in the C3 Academics Pod. The students gather at a designated house and participate in virtual classes together instead of alone at their houses. The POD Supervisor makes sure they are on task and alert during classes. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Six months with this pandemic, and months to go before we exit the trap, has changed many minds on many things.

Health care for one. You can expect state Democrats to focus on Medicaid expansion in the final 40 days left in this election season, especially as they reach for votes in COVID-battered rural Georgia.

Then there is the experience that millions of parents — along with their student-aged children — have suffered through with virtual learning, suddenly thrust upon them by the shuttering of classrooms across the state.

There are signs that advocates of school choice — a voucher system in which taxpayer funds for education follow students to the classroom of their parents' choosing, whether public or private — are hoping that the pandemic has blunted longstanding legislative hostility to the idea in the state Capitol.

Last Tuesday, a coalition of conservative groups, African American church congregations and advocates for disabled children sent a letter to Gov. Brian Kemp — who has been placed in sole charge of more than $100 million in federal relief dollars for educational purposes.

In August, the governor announced where some $83 million of that cash was going — to improve online connectivity in local school systems, toward mental health programs for students, and to bolster early learning operations.

This coalition wants Kemp to use the remaining $20 million in “micro grants” to parents “to provide immediate relief to students during this time.” The decision belongs entirely to Kemp. It is one of the perks of governing in a national crisis.

“[T]he creation of micro-grants does not take any dollars away from public schools and does not require legislative action that would otherwise hinder providing immediate assistance to kids,” the coalition wrote in its letter.

The request was not spur of the moment. Talks with the governor’s office have been going on since this spring, we’re told. Also last week, the coalition released a poll of likely Georgia voters in which 42% said they had spent more than $500 to help their kids adapt to learning-by-laptop at home.

Seventy-seven percent expressed some degree of support for individual subsidies paid to parents. “We’re working to have the strongest possible case on this issue,” said Christy Riggins, state field director for American Federation for Children.

The AFC, the dominant organization behind the push, is a longstanding advocate for school choice and was once headed by Betsy DeVos, now U.S. secretary of education. Another member of the coalition is the Georgia chapter of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“I think micro grants are very consistent with what we’ve always advocated for, which is that we believe parents are in the best possible position to make decisions for their children,” Riggins said.

“This pandemic has really changed the paradigm on how people view education. There are a lot of folks who never imagined that they would be in a position in which their kids would be at home all day, on the computer doing virtual learning,” the AFC field director said.

But the pandemic has also forced $2.2 billion in state spending cuts this summer — about $950 million for K-12 education. And $20 million doesn’t go as far as it used to. Last year, there were 1.7 million kids in Georgia public schools, which would amount to little more than a tenner and change per student.

Exactly who would get these micro grants would be up to the Kemp. Federal regulations appear to forbid the bestowing of grants on individuals. But the governors of Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Florida — all Republican — have found ways to create the programs, Riggins said.

As far as recipients go, Riggins and her colleagues would push parents of students with special needs to the front of the line.

Molly Gareau is a west Cobb County mother of seven. Her older, high school-aged children are home-schooled. Her youngest is a third-grader born with hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid within the brain.

The 8-year-old daughter goes to a local public school and had been signed up for in-classroom instruction, until all Cobb County schools went virtual. “That’s been the crux of the issue with the forced virtual,” Gareau said. "She can’t learn virtually. Kids like her have a one-on-one para-pro with them all day, every day.

They’ve tried with the computer at home. “We never want to see that again. Frustration, tears, stuff thrown all over the floor,” her mother said. “I could sit there all day with her, literally every second, which does not work. I have other children I have to teach, and a household to run. Everything else was crumbling apart, but leaving her alone was not working because she just couldn’t do it – and it’s terrible to watch.”

The family’s stopgap solution has been to hire an aide three mornings a week, at $15 an hour.

In most school systems that have emptied their buildings, special need students will be among the first to return. In Cobb, Gareau’s daughter is to go back to the classroom on Oct. 5. “But who knows what’s going to happen with COVID,” the mother said. New outbreaks could send her daughter right back home.

A spokesman for Kemp says the micro grant request is being evaluated, along with other proposals. But it’s worth noting that the governor has strong support within the home-schooling community, an important part of the GOP base.

Such a program could also serve as prelude to a larger effort in January, when the Legislature next meets in regular session. If that’s the case, public school advocates say they’re ready.

“We’re always prepared for vouchers to be an issue, because they are a perennial issue,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Given nearly $1 billion in budget cuts for education this year, that opposition extends to this micro grant proposal, too. “Any federal funds that are spent as relief due to this pandemic — those funds should be for public schools,” Morgan said.

“I have talked to teachers who have bought shower curtains to try to set up barriers in their classrooms because no barriers were provided,” said Morgan, a DeKalb County elementary school teacher for 19 years.

“We know in virtual learning, as in classroom learning, educators spend out of their own pockets. Unfortunately, that’s a fact of life for educators,” Morgan said. “You certainly don’t ask Delta pilots to pay for the fuel for the plane.”

Even so, the turmoil over keeping kids home and educated will likely mean a revival of the debate over traditional school funding next year.

“I hate to use a pandemic to push something on folks, but the reality is if kids aren’t in school, there’s going to be extra cost involved to the parents. I think it at least opens the discussion again,” said state Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, who may have extra clout next year as chairman of the Senate committee on redistricting.

Brass was elected four years ago, with the support of the American Federation for Children. He has a second-grader and a kindergartner. Both had been going to public school this year, but no more. Both Brass and his wife work outside the home.

“We were worried that if one kid tested positive a class could be shut down for two weeks. I’d be asking the grandparents of my children to help — after they’ve been exposed in school. And they’re in the high-risk pool,” Brass said.

The lawmaker said he has not drafted any specific proposals yet, but talk has begun. “People in the past that weren’t willing to discuss it are now at least willing to listen,” Brass said.

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