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Opinion: Improving education with options for Georgia’s students
Orange Duffel Bag Initiative 1 031319
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Editor's note: This article was submitted by Greg Dolezal, who respresents District 26 in the Georgia Senate, and Geoff Duncan, who serves as Georgia's lieutenant governor.

Every day, moms and dads are faced with choices that will affect our children and their needs: what car to drive, what sports leagues or music lessons to sign up for, what doctor to use and a myriad of other considerations. Seldom are we accused of hating the choice that we do not make – if a child has aptitude and interest in the trumpet, it isn’t to say she hates the guitar. But this seems to be the argument that opponents of educational choice have levied against families, legislators and our state’s leaders.

We have introduced and supported legislation to create an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) program in Georgia. Through an ESA program, parents can sign up to have their child’s state K-12 education funding deposited into an account that they can use to pay for a variety of state-approved schools, courses, programs and services, including online courses, tutoring, virtual schooling, private schooling and special education services.

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District 27 state Sen. Greg Dolezal - photo by For the FCN

Our plan is capped at 0.5 percent of students in Georgia its first year and is only available to students who meet certain criteria: military students, foster students, special needs students, bullied students, and those whose family earn up to 150 percent of the federal poverty line. Our plan freezes enrollment if public schools are not fully funded.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan

By providing access to a range of educational options, ESAs empower families with the ability to create a customized education plan that maximizes a child's natural learning abilities.

The public debate on Education Scholarship Accounts, including by Dick Yarbrough in this very paper, claims that any supporter of educational options for Georgia families is an enemy of public education. Conversely, a supporter of public education cannot also support school choice in any form.

We reject this false dichotomy.

We are decidedly pro quality education in all its forms. In addition to fully funding the state’s education funding formula for the second time ever, we have supported the largest teacher pay raise in Georgia history and provided grants for investments in school safety. In fact, public school spending has increased over $1 billion dollars in the past two years, despite declining school enrollment statewide.

Most students will receive the best education at one of our excellent public schools. Each of our kids – seven in total – are attending or will attend public school. However, even the best teacher in the best school could not meet the unique needs of every single student.

Even in Forsyth County, one of the wealthiest and best school districts, there are moms like Cammie Alkire. Cammie has four children, including a daughter with special needs. Throughout the process of trying to make sure her daughter’s needs are met, she says her family often felt alone in trying to navigate the challenges they faced. Like many parents, she and her husband work hard every month to budget as much as they can to ensure that their daughter is given the best opportunities in life. She said that just having options or extra help would have made a world of difference, especially early on. ESAs can provide both to families like the Alkire’s.

Cammie is not alone in Forsyth County, and certainly not in Georgia. We want to see her family and others have the ability to thrive, no matter what the best educational path may look like.

There are milestones students have to hit, month-by-month, year-by-year. If they don’t, they fall behind. If they fall too far behind, they may never catch up. Some families need immediate access to something different so their child isn’t lost.

The great news is we are a resource-rich state with amazing teachers, schools, tutors, therapists, programs and support services – both public and private – that our students can benefit from. Until every child is learning at their highest potential, why wouldn’t we want to bring every resource to bear to give the child opportunity?

Despite claims from some of the bill’s critics, ESA legislation allows for a tailored, customized learning experience to meet a child’s unique needs – all without spending any additional state resources.

Under the proposal, we take the same amount of state money we were going to spend to educate a child in public school and free it up to be used in a number of different ways. Parents can still send their child to their traditional public school if that’s what’s working for them. But if it’s not, the parent is empowered to use that money for their child to customize an education that does work. 

And since we leave the local and federal funding in the school system, per pupil spending for the school system increases as well.

The prospect of ESAs bring hope for families like the Alkire’s and others across Georgia who are watching to see if Georgia legislators will give them some small consideration during this time of record public school investment.

We believe we can offer all kids an individualized education. We can support trumpet players and guitarists alike.

Greg Dolezal represents District 26 in the Georgia Senate. Geoff Duncan serves as Georgia’s lieutenant governor.