Though under Republican control, the Georgia legislature recently failed to do what several other red-state legislatures have done: enact universal school choice legislation. The measure didn’t fail because of a lack of commitment from its champions but because too many Republicans were persuaded by the weak arguments made by opponents of educational freedom.
Georgia Senate Bill 233 passed the chamber 33-23, with all Republicans supporting and all Democrats opposing. In the House, however, the bill was voted down, 89-85, due to representatives crossing party lines. While one Democrat, Mesha Mainor of Atlanta, voted for the bill, 16 House Republicans from rural districts voted against it.
Although the initial goal was to approve universal education savings accounts (ESAs), the effort got watered down significantly along the way. As a result, the failed bill fell far short of applying to students statewide. It would have provided Georgia public school families in the bottom 25% of schools with $6,000 to put toward private school tuition or homeschooling costs but left the vast majority of Georgia’s families ineligible for this needed resource.
Mainor’s vote as a Democrat in favor of the bill stirred up controversy among her fellow Democrats in the House. Mainor penned a column in The Georgia Virtue explaining her vote:
When a Black, independent, female Democrat legislator who grew up in poverty wants to give the bottom 25 percent of children attending failing schools a second chance at education, this infuriates some of my fellow Democrats to the point they are soliciting my opposition. That’s exactly the problem.
I have the most charter schools within my district in the entire state because poor Black parents want something different, and they deserve it. I refuse to tell these parents in my district that we should close charter schools because it takes children away from the public school system. I refuse to tell these parents that the Democratic agenda does not care how broke parents are and that these children deserve to stay in that school with three percent reading proficiency. Are we going to keep telling these families to wait and see if we can get it right in the next 50 years?
Mainor’s courage should be applauded, and one hopes the constituencies of other Democratic legislators are listening.
The 16 rural House Republican holdouts, on the other hand, were taken in by the worn-out claims of their district superintendents and teachers’ unions (six of them had been endorsed by the teachers’ unions) that school choice would take money from public schools and hurt the poor. It should be obvious by now that money is not the primary factor in educational performance. Massive Covid-19 funding injected into an already bloated K-12 public school system has proved ineffective in boosting the flatlined student academic growth of recent decades.
That’s not the only big lie being peddled by superintendents and teachers’ unions in Georgia (or in Texas, Tennessee, and other red states) to persuade rural Republican legislators to vote against giving parents educational options for their children. One argument has it that giving school choice to families will remove education jobs from communities. It doesn’t add up: students still need to be educated, so education jobs won’t disappear – instead, they will shift from a single supplier to a variety of options. These expanded options would provide educators with improved career opportunities and greater autonomy.
Despite a failed effort during the 2023 legislative session, key groundwork has been laid for future success in educational choice. There are good reasons to be hopeful. First, Governor Brian Kemp endorsed the bill, for example. His support came only in the eleventh hour this time, but his backing may prove more vital in the 2024 session.
Second, thanks to Georgia’s two-year legislative terms, the House can pick up the bill again next year without requiring the Senate to pass it again, should the bill remain as is. Third, the demand for educational choice will grow as Georgia sees other states (especially next-door neighbor Florida) reaping its benefits. Fourth, political pressure can be applied to the rural House Republican holdouts.
Georgia can learn from the example of states that have enjoyed success in passing school choice legislation. For example, Iowa could not get a partial ESA across the finish line for two years. But Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds redoubled her efforts and put forward a universal ESA bill that was signed into law in January.
Georgia should especially look to Florida’s recent passage of House Bill 1, which grants universal ESAs to all families statewide while also deregulating public schools. Such a bill in Georgia could provide a powerful incentive to sway the few needed rural House Republicans back into the party fold and, more importantly, back on the side of parents and their children.
One thing is certain: universal ESAs are here to stay and will only expand as more states enact them in the coming years. Let’s hope 2024 is the year that all Georgia families win educational freedom.