As Georgia’s 2018 legislative session marches to a close this week, will lawmakers act to expand Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program? Legislation pending in the state Senate, if passed, would yield huge benefits for families in desperate need of educational options.
First, a bit of background. Originally passed in 2008, the tax credit scholarships currently provide up to $58 million in scholarships so that students from low-income, working-class, and minority families can attend high-quality private schools that better meet their academic needs.
Here’s how the program works: The law allows private citizens and corporations to receive tax credits for donations to nonprofit Student Scholarship Organizations, which then administer scholarships across the state on behalf of needy kids. In 2015 alone, over 13,000 students received scholarships. The beautiful part of the program is that it creates the opportunity for Georgians to be charitable in support of school choice, while also benefiting families in need of better academic options.
Because the program is capped at $58 million—a limitation that’s been in place for a decade now—families and students have been waitlisted trying to access the scholarships. Thankfully, House Bill 217 would take an important stride toward reducing that problem by raising the cap to $65 million.
Previous versions of the bill were even more ambitious by raising the cap to $100 million in a graduated course of six years, effectively doubling the size of the program and bringing educational choice to as many as 130,000 students. Although the current version is pared down, it is still a step in the right direction.
House Bill 217 could come up for a floor vote in the Senate this week. But, as Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield writes, the bill faces a new hurdle—a proposal to automatically sunset tax credits after a certain period of time:
Why should that kind of program be subjected to an automatic sunset, and all the uncertainty that creates for families? As Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told me, to explain why he cautions against putting a sunset on the program, “these scholarships more times than not follow students for most, if not all, of their k-12 education.” Blindly ending the program will truly harm those students.
The idea seems to be that if something is worth doing, it must be worth stopping — without regard to how much good it’s doing.
Requiring more data reporting (as this bill does) and a periodic review of the program that stops short of automatically ending it would increase accountability without adding needless uncertainty. If that’s what senators really want, that’s what they should do.
As the General Assembly enters its final weeks of the session, now is the time for lawmakers to act on this crucial bill. Indeed, heading into the 2018 election year, lawmakers should have education as one of their top priorities. According to a January poll conducted by the University of Georgia, Peach State voters named “education” as the single most important issue facing the state today.
According to scholars, America is increasingly becoming a society polarized between higher- and lower-income people. Whereas until recently a majority of Americans were considered middle class, now good jobs for those who only have a high school diploma are rapidly disappearing—while those with a good education reap the benefits of well-paying jobs and a booming economy.
In short, this increasing economic divergence means it’s harder to achieve the American Dream of upward mobility and a middle class lifestyle. And studies show that not only is the middle class now smaller in size than the top and bottom rungs of the economic ladder combined, the gap between rich and poor is increasing.
Here in Georgia, the statistics are particularly grim. In 2016, 25% of Georgia children were living in poverty—with 60% of all students eligible for free or reduced school lunches. Altogether, 39% of our children grow up in single-parent homes and are six times more likely to be poor. And while graduation rates have increased recently, Georgia still ranks in the bottom five states nationally for drop-out rates.
The bottom line is that 21% of Georgians age 18 to 24 are not successfully transitioning to adulthood. This means they are not enrolled in school, not working, and have no degree beyond a high school diploma. Ultimately, it also means that the devastating cycle of generational poverty will be repeated—leaving little hope of moving into the middle class.
So, how do we help our students turn their lives around? We must give them tools to succeed—specifically by expanding school choice options that put them on what scholars call the “success sequence.” A simple concept, this sequence teaches that a good education leads to a stable job—which in turn leads to a flourishing home life and overall success in life.
Clearly, the all-important first step is getting a good education. And here the data show that expanding school choice is particularly good for poorer students because more competition in education means better schools and improved student outcomes.
The good news is Georgia is a leader in educational opportunity—with more than 17,000 students benefitting from expanded school choice programs. And these programs are popular—with 84 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents, and 55 percent of Democrats supporting school choice. Among Millennials and minorities, support is even stronger—and growing—with 74 percent of Latinos, 72 percent of African Americans, and 75 percent of Millennials in favor.
The fact is that most students will continue to be educated in traditional public schools. But we must continue to advocate for expanded school choice and recognize the obvious fact each child is different and many underserved students will be more successful in schools that best meet their needs. Expanded school choice allows parents to send their kids to a school they believe best fits their child—placing them on a success sequence that breaks the cycle of poverty and creates the opportunity for upward mobility and a satisfied life.
Isn’t this what we want for all American kids—and not just the wealthy?
With more than 17,000 students enrolled in scholarship programs, Georgia is a leader in educational opportunity, according to the 2016-2017 School Choice Yearbook put out by the American Federation for Children (AFC). In fact, the Peach State is seventh in the country in scholarship program participation, with 4,000 kids receiving tuition assistance through the Special Needs Scholarship Program and 13,600 more participating in the tax credit scholarship program.
It’s exciting to see enthusiasm like this, but it shouldn’t be surprising. According to a poll by AFC, school choice is popular: 84 percent of Republicans, 55 percent of Democrats, and 67 percent of independents support school choice. Among millennials and minorities, support is even stronger, with 74 percent of Latinos, 72 percent of African Americans, and 75 percent of millennials in favor. And the momentum is only growing.
Why is that the case? Among many other reasons, school choice recognizes the obvious fact that not every student is the same. No school can successfully meet the unique and individual needs of every single student—and no school should. It’s too great a task to ask schools to cater to the kids whose parents want them to learn Mandarin, the kids with particularly complex special needs, the kids who are particularly gifted, the kids who want to play violin, and the kids who would thrive in a traditional school. When some parents want the kids in uniforms, some don’t, and some don’t care but don’t want to fight about it, how can one school please everyone?
School choice means they don’t have to. School choice allows parents to send their kids to whatever school they believe is the best fit for their child’s unique needs, skills, and goals. And who is more invested in a child’s success than their parents?
This year, lawmakers are on track to expand the state’s wildly popular tuition tax credit scholarship program. If the measure passes the Senate, it will allow even more Georgians to access even more opportunity. And opportunity in education means opportunity for life.