Several years ago, I had the opportunity to tag along on a trip with a handful of Georgia legislators, education officials and Gov. Nathan Deal. We visited New Orleans and talked to a variety of educators and community leaders who were all stakeholders in re-creating the local school system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
A lasting memory from the trip came from one of the initiatives’ biggest initial critics, who had become one of its biggest champions. When asked how she was able to work with those she didn’t initially trust, toward a solution she reluctantly came to accept, she had a relatively simple but profound answer.
She told us that she always asked whenever there was a disagreement if the problem was about the adults or about the kids. She found that the stickiest issues were usually “adult problems”, and that when the groups focused on the kids, it was much easier to find a consensus and move forward.
Issues of teacher compensation, pension programs and taxation are “adult problems”, and Georgia has spent the time digging out of the recession into our current expanding economy focused on them. When state revenues began to grow, Deal allocated roughly half of each year’s additional money to education. Some years included significantly more than half. The result is that the state’s education funding formula, its QBE, was fully met last year for the first time in decades, if ever, depending on who you ask.
Gov. Brian Kemp has been equally ambitious. The vast majority of new spending under his first budget proposal (to the tune of a half billion dollars) has been earmarked for teacher pay raises, with a promise of even more to come. That’s money for raises now, and additional money going into Georgia’s Teacher Retirement System for bigger pensions later.
The adults are being taken care of. Too many of Georgia’s students are not.
As Georgia pours more and more money into the same system, most students are still locked into educational opportunities based on the zip code in which their parents can afford to live. Too many have limits placed on their education attainment based on socioeconomic factors and arbitrary district lines.
Students are not one-size-fits-all yet all too often that’s how the system is designed. We do not have a system designed to maximize each student’s inherent potential. We do, however, have options to unlock additional opportunities for all.
Georgia House Bill 301 – and its companion, Senate Bill 173 – seek to provide scholarships to Georgia students in order to give them additional opportunity beyond the traditional school they are assigned by their district. It would be limited to no more than one half of one percent of Georgia’s students in its initial year, growing to no more than 5 percent over the life of the program.
It would be available only to students who have spent the prior year in a Georgia public school, and thus wouldn’t be a “voucher” for kids currently in private schools. Priority would be given to students with disabilities, those from families with limited financial means, the children of active duty military personnel, those in the foster system or those who have documented cases of having been bullied. Schools accepting the students would have to meet financial, safety, and non-discrimination standards and employ teachers with specific education credentials.
As for other “adult problems” that critics usually raise, it should be noted that no local funds are used for these scholarships. Thus, all local property and ESPLOST taxes remain in the student’s local system, but the system has no financial responsibility for educating the student.
The state, meanwhile, has fully funded QBE and is giving teachers significant pay raises. Thus, no one in the existing bureaucracy is being starved to give families additional options to ensure their children can maximize personal opportunity.
Everyone in this situation wins. That is the way it should be, when the adults who decide policy focus on the children first.