3 Votes, 2 Years, 1 Cause: How Georgia Exploded on the School Choice Scene

THREE YEARS AGO, THE ONLY CHOICE Georgia students seemingly had was whether they wanted a rectangular pizza or to pack their own lunch. But in the span of one legislative term (two years), the state has emerged as an unlikely school choice pioneer with two major pieces of private school choice law—one voucher and one tax credit program—and a beefed up charter school law that takes the power of approving and funding a charter out of the hands of the local school boards.

And it’s about time.

As a state, Georgia graduates only about half of its high school students. Just this May, the state school system announced that about 40 percent of Georgia’s eighth graders could be held back because of failed test scores. Parents fumed. Teachers were enraged. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized that Georgia’s “middle school students statewide flunked the Criterion- Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) more completely and in more numbers than adolescents are usually known to do anything.” For decades now, Georgia has hovered at or near the bottom of all national education rankings—from SAT scores to drop-out rates and all sorts of reading and math scores in between. Academics-wise, it seems that Georgia ranks high only in performing poorly.

You might presume that such a formula, combined with a Republican- dominated House, Senate, and Governor’s office would create the perfect storm for school choice trail-blazing. You would be wrong. The victories in Georgia have come by the skinniest of margins—the special needs bill by one vote, and the tax credit bill by two.

Special Needs Vouchers

In 2007, the first window of opportunity for school choice in Georgia was opened when Senate President Pro-Tem Eric Johnson decided to make a voucher for special needs students his signature bill for the session. The introduction of SB 10—or the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship Program—marked the first time any private school choice measure for K-12 students had been attempted in almost a decade. (In 1999, Senator Clay Land introduced what was called the Early Hope Scholarship, which would have provided vouchers to low-income students in poor-performing schools.) SB 10 gives special needs students a voucher in the amount the state spends on that child’s education that could be used to attend a private school of the parent’s choice.

As expected, the education establishment regarded the bill as an apocalypse and dug in with both feet. Despite Georgia’s perennial status as an educational bottom-feeder, the education establishment (the Georgia Association of Educators, the School Boards Association, the state PTA, and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators) still opined that more choice and opportunity was the sure pathway to educational demise. Protected by an apparent obliviousness to Georgia’s dismal status, the education establishment drove into the state capitol with their usual tactics of fear, misinformation, and local school power riding shotgun. They were again determined to protect the status quo without so much as a whiff of irony that the status quo was the heavyweight champion of failing kids.

A pro-school choice coalition (the Georgia Family Council, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, The Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Catholic Conference, the Jewish Federation, Torah Day Schools, as well national groups such as the Alliance for School Choice and the Friedman Foundation) decided to respond with facts and parents—and a cameo from Barney the Purple Dinosaur. Numerous parents offered hours of “break your heart” testimony about how desperate they were for another educational opportunity for their struggling child, but couldn’t afford it. One such story came from a mom who would visit her son’s special needs classroom to find him propped in front of Barney videos all day. The Barneyfication of our education system was a turning point. Once she was able to move him to a private school, she explained, he was able to learn to read and advance academically like never before.

Such stories and testimony helped ease the bill through the Senate as expected. The House, we all knew going in, was the true battleground for this bill. No stone was left unturned. No angle went un-played. No story went untold. Still, on the last day of session, in the last hour of session, the bill was one vote short of passage. But in the shadow of a crushing, one-vote, near-miss defeat, the Speaker wielded his gavel. And in one slow-motion, hear-your-own-heartbeat, black-and-white moment of desperate suspense, he weighed in with the final vote necessary to pass SB 10 into law and bring hope and promise to Georgia’s students. (Note: Melodrama fully intended and warranted.)

A year later, almost 900 students with special needs are receiving scholarships from the state under the law. Not a single public school closed, lost money, or had to fire any teachers, which exposes the apocalyptic warnings of the education establishment for what they really were: a bunch of hot air.

Our next decision was whether to accept our win, take our foot off the gas, and regroup for future battles, or to go into overdrive, seize the momentum, and continue to smash through the gauntlet of entrenchments and school entitlements. Ultimately, we chose the latter.

At least two other trophies were within reach: easing the road for charter school implementation and tax credits for those giving to private school scholarship organizations.

Freeing Charter Schools from Local School Board Obstruction

Would it make sense to allow McDonald’s to decide whether a Wendy’s could open in the same neighborhood? Of course not. But that’s precisely the sort of power that local school boards had over prospective charter schools. Under Georgia law, charter school authorizations had to be approved by local school boards. The state school board could ultimately approve a charter, but without the local board’s approval, the charter school would receive less than half of the funding they would receive otherwise, making it nearly financially impossible for them to operate.

House Bill 881 removed the local school board’s ability to have the final say in whether a charter school opens up in the area by creating an independent authorizing board. The law also brought equality to the funding formula by allowing charters to receive their full allowable funding regardless of who approves the charter.

HB 881 passed the usually problematic House by a vote of 119 to 48. The ease of passage was a result of the fact that even legislators who oppose vouchers for private schools are often comfortable with the concept of providing choice within public education.

Tax Credits for Private School Scholarships

The more difficult win was HB 1133, the tax credit scholarship program. HB 1133 allows companies and individuals to receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations made to student scholarship organizations—nonprofits that give scholarships to current public school students who wish to attend a private school. Corporations can receive a credit for donations in an amount of up to 75 percent of their tax liability. Individual donations are capped at $1,000 or $2,500 for a married couple filing jointly. Overall, there is a statewide cap of $50 million. Again, a skinny vote ensued. With 92 votes in the House—one more than necessary—HB 1133 passed.

In response to the passage of HB 1133, Jeff Hubbard, state president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said: “This was a classic public versus private issue. We do not feel that public funds should be going to pay for private education.”

Mr. Hubbard, and those in his camp, perpetually miss the point. This is not a debate over public versus private (much less a classic one). This is a debate about educating our children, by whatever means it takes to get the job done. This is an understanding that, despite doubling per-student spending since 2004, we have seen very little return on our investment. This is about finally saying enough is enough. We are not satisfied standing by to watch thousands of students graduate each year unprepared for college or the workplace and to watch as thousands of other students fail to graduate at all.

A $50 million cap on the tax credit scholarship program represents less than one-half of 1 percent of total education spending by the state. Perhaps we can diversify with such a small percentage and just see what sort of return we get.

Lessons Learned: Advice to Anyone in Another State Who Sits Where We Did Three Years Ago

● A Republican majority does not necessarily make it easy to pass school choice legislation. In Georgia, Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the executive branch, and, still, school choice legislation passed by the skinniest of margins.

● You must have a champion with political capital—and the will to use every bit of it for choice. Here in Georgia, Sen. Eric Johnson was willing to make school choice his signature issue and was willing to use his position as President Pro Tem to make trades and cash in favors to help choice bills succeed.

● Be careful in making concessions to your bill hoping to gain the support of the education establishment. Such compromises can weaken your bill without gaining you any votes. In our case, often the school board associations or state PTA would ask that we tweak school choice bills in some way that would make it more palatable for them. But not a single such compromise actually gained us any support in the long run.

● Know your allies. Know your opponents. And, in both cases, look beyond your usual suspects. You may find non- traditional partners such as the business community, anti-tax advocates, or parents in various special needs advocacy groups.

● Tap into the vast knowledge of those who have gone before you. There are numerous school choice programs in a handful of states. Learn all you can from the people there before starting out. It will save you much time, energy, and money to have an understanding of what has worked and what hasn’t elsewhere.

● Parents are the key. If you involve them early, parents will go to great lengths to secure a better future for their children. They are the best messengers to the legislature and the media. Bill design is boring, but important. Again, talk to national choice advocates and get legal help. A well-written bill will withstand court challenges and will be easier to pass and implement.

● There is more than one school choice argument. Know them, and match your message to your audience. For some, the idea of free markets and competition is fundamental and all you need to say. For others, the social justice message—the horror that lower income, predominately minority communities are trapped in cycles of poverty due to generations of educational failure—will ring truer.

● Have thick skin. You will be personally accused to trying to undermine all of public education to the great harm of all children (and maybe even puppies and kittens). Be prepared, and forgo name calling. What you are doing will bring hope to those most in need.

Ms. Self is Director of Government Affairs for the Georgia Family Council.