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Opinion: If governor wants more opportunity for poor Georgia kids, give parents $8,000 to choose education path

Glenn Delk is an Atlanta lawyer and long-time advocate for parental choice in education.

In this essay, he urges Gov. Nathan Deal to embrace education savings accounts, which allowfamilies to use the state money allotted for their children's k-12 schooling for a variety of educational options, including private school tuition, homeschooling or online classes.

By Glenn Delk

Gov. Nathan Deal, in promoting his Opportunity School District, said Georgia has a moral duty to assist children trapped in failing schools.

Previously, in December 2012, he established the Complete College Georgia Plan pursuant to which the University System of Georgia committed to a goal of at least 60 percent of all 9th grade students by 2018 achieving a two or four-year college degree.

However, despite 20 years of school reform, as well as passage of the HOPE Scholarship, the  number for all students achieving the governor’s goal is 9 percent; for minority students, the number is 2 percent. Many believe that to come close to achieving the governor’s laudable objective Georgia needs to give all students “Early Hope.”

While the Opportunity School District -- if passed by the voters in 2016 -- will assist students in up to 100 failing schools, it will aid at most 50,000 students annually; by some estimates, the state has over 500,000 students attending “D” or “F” schools.

Clearly, given the dismal number of Georgia students receiving a college degree, we’re not preparing all students for post-secondary work. However, recent developments in other states illustrate a possible solution.

Within the last two weeks, the Nevada Legislature passed Senate Bill 302 establishing education savings accounts (“ESAs”), and Gov. Brian Sandoval signed the bill into law, thereby making Nevada the first state in the country to offer universal school choice to nearly 500,000 children.

Under Nevada’s plan, poor students will receive 100 percent of the state per pupil funding, with everyone else getting 90 percent, with the estimated average being $5,000 per student. Nevada’s actions are just the beginning of a groundswell of similar legislation throughout the country. Arizona and Florida already have limited ESAs; Mississippi and Tennessee just passed special needs ESAs.  A liberal Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, is leading a diverse coalition of more than 100 organizations pushing for passage of New York’s version.

Last year, Gov. Sandoval and his Republican colleagues in the Nevada Legislature took control of the governor’s office and both Houses for the first time since 1929. Within six months of taking office, they passed SB 302, showing the rest of the country that:

  • School choice is a winner politically, as well as from a policy standpoint
  • ESAs, as well as all forms of school choice, are favored by 70 percent of all Americans according to most polls, including those conducted by Democrats
  • ESAs are consistent with the American Dream
  • ESAs are clear, simple and easy to understand
  • ESAs give all parents  the ability and responsibility, for the first time, of owning their child’s education, motivated to choose the highest quality education for each child at the lowest possible cost, since any savings roll-over to pay for college.

Georgia should pass its own version of ESAs, setting funding at $8,000 for low-income students, and $7,000 for everyone else.  Assuming the funds only came from annual state k-12 education budget of $7.5 billion, the state would dedicate up to $4 billion annually to fund ESAs for low-income students and $3.5 billion annually for all other students.

Depending on the demand, the state could create up to 500,000 ESAs of $8,000 each for poor students and up to 500,000 ESAs of $7,000 each for all other students. If ESAs were funded to capacity, it would still leave 700,000 students attending traditional district-run schools, with funding, exclusive of federal funds, of $8 billion in local property tax funds, or $11,428 per student.

The Georgia Student Finance Commission could easily administer the ESAs through the use of debit cards restricting use of the funds to pre-approved categories. Now, the commission administers, amongst other programs, the HOPE Scholarship, with a stated mission of “promoting access to education beyond high school for Georgians.”

All Gov. Deal and the General Assembly would need to do is delete “beyond high school” from the mission to make it applicable to all Georgians from kindergarten through college.

During the 2014 race for governor, PolitiFact Georgia -- which checks statements of candidates, politicians and special interests and assigns them a "Truth-O-Meter" rating -- challenged an ad by Gov. Deal which featured former Gov. Zell Miller saying:  “HOPE was a big achievement for Georgia. But when it ran into trouble and headed for bankruptcy, Nathan Deal rose to the challenge.  Now, thanks to Nathan, HOPE is available for the next generation.” After “fact-checking,” the AJC concluded that Gov. Deal, with a little help, saved the HOPE Scholarship.

{From Maureen: The Deal campaign ad was one of many from both camps examined by PolitiFact during last year's campaign. PolitiFact stated : "Deal made changes that eased financial pressures on the popular HOPE scholarship. But he also changed the program significantly. The program is still making higher education more affordable for many students, though not as many as before. Miller makes a valid argument here: Deal --- with a little help --- saved the HOPE scholarship. But Miller's declaration needs a bit of context to be fully understood. We rate his statement Mostly True."}

ESAs represent a natural extension of Gov. Deal’s actions in saving HOPE by making “Early Hope” available to students to enable them and their families to choose the best education, public, charter, private, etc. to prepare and qualify for the HOPE scholarship, as well as succeed in completing college.  According to some estimates, since HOPE was passed more than 20 years ago, more than $15 billion has provided 1.5 million students.

Now is the time to provide $7.5 billion annually in “Early Hope” to a million students in the form of ESAs. If we do so, in 20 years Georgians will rightfully give Gov. Deal the same praise heaped on Zell Miller.

Most importantly, Georgia would become the first state in the history of the United States to give all students from kindergarten through college, regardless of race, income or zip code, an equal opportunity to pursue their version of the American Dream.




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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.