Op-EdAppeared in The Georgia Star News on January 20, 2024By Alfredo Ortiz

Commentary: Education Freedom Is Georgia’s Top Priority

In his recent State of the State address, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp strongly endorsed Georgia’s education freedom legislation, which offers disadvantaged Georgians the same quality education as everyone else. “Our job is not to decide for every family but to support them in making the best [education] choice for their child,” said Kemp. “That is what we were elected to do.”

Senate Bill 233, the Georgia Promise Scholarship Act, establishes education freedom accounts (EFAs) of $6,500 annually for families who choose better education alternatives. Eligibility is limited to families whose children attend the worst 25% of schools statewide. Parents can use the funds for any educational expense, including tuition, fees, books, tutoring, and transportation. This bill should be the legislature’s top priority in 2024.

According to the latest federal data, only 21% of black and 23% of Hispanic fourth graders in Georgia can read proficiently. In some state schools, this figure drops into the single digits. This is scandalous. Research shows that students who can’t read proficiently by fourth grade are more likely to struggle academically and drop out because proficient reading is the foundation for learning almost anything. Unsurprisingly, low literacy rates are also associated with higher poverty and crime.

Almost every child has the capacity to read proficiently. Schools that cannot teach these skills to the majority of their students should face competition from those that can. Yet under the status quo, children are condemned to learning loss merely because of their zip code. EFAs offer a lifeline to these poor kids trapped in failing public schools. They give them the opportunity to learn to read, succeed, and reach their full potential.

I should know. I was one of them. Escaping my failing school district for a good school allowed me to learn the skills to succeed at the highest levels of corporate America and as a small business owner. Everyone deserves this opportunity.

Other states have recently implemented or expanded EFAs to the benefit of their students. Last year, Florida introduced universal school choice for all students and has seen a surge in demand from families. Nearly half of Florida students attend a school other than the one closest to them. Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia also offer universal EFAs.

After passing in the state senate, Georgia’s education freedom legislation was narrowly defeated in the House last year, with 16 House Republicans from rural districts voting against it. They claim education freedom drains resources from rural public schools. Yet this concern is unfounded. Rural school districts have remained robust in states like Arizona which have had education freedom for decades. Quality schools have nothing to worry about.

Teachers unions are desperate to retain their monopoly on students and the associated hundreds of millions of dollars of annual dues payments, so they are funding activist groups to oppose education freedom. Their message is pretty tired and lame: education freedom is racist.

For example, the teachers union-funded Partnership for the Future of Learning claims, “The history of [education freedom] is rooted in segregation.” That’s ridiculous. Education freedom in some states dates to the post-Civil War period, yet widescale education freedom didn’t come until the 1990s and 2000s.

In reality, education freedom reduces segregation by allowing disproportionately black and brown students to escape their failing neighborhood schools. By offering every student the right to a good education, education freedom is the civil rights issue of our time. It takes some gall and desperation to claim it’s racist.

Mesha Mainor, a Black Democratic member of Georgia’s House of Representatives who voted in favor of SB 233, explains how education freedom is anti-racist in the truest sense of the word. “I have the most charter schools within my district in the entire state because poor Black parents want something different, and they deserve it… I refuse to tell these parents that the Democratic agenda does not care how broke parents are and that these children deserve to stay in that school with 3% reading proficiency. Are we going to keep telling these families to wait and see if we can get it right in the next 50 years?”

The Georgia State House should respond to Mainor’s question with a resounding “no” and usher in EFAs this year.