Access Denied: Georgia Parents who Can’t Obtain Education Funds for School Choice


For many families in Georgia, providing an education for their children is a huge sacrifice. Many middle class families rake and scrape in order to afford to provide tutoring or expensive therapy for challenges their children face such as a speech problem or issues requiring a reading specialist or occupational therapy. Other families pay for a good education for their children by moving into a great school district and paying a high mortgage or rent that is difficult to swing, and that may even lead to financial hardship for the family. For all of these situations, providing more access to the funds that are collected to cover the education costs of students in this state, including postsecondary education costs, is only reasonable.

In this past state legislative session in Georgia, Representative Mark Hamilton of Cumming introduced house bill 243, legislation that would provide such access to state education funds via a debit card that would link to an education savings account, much like a health savings account. (Senator Hunter Hill introduced a similar bill in the Senate, SB 92.)  An educational savings account (ESA) such as the one proposed in HB 243 would allow access to state funds “which may be used for qualifying educational expenses, including future postsecondary education expenses.”

Qualifying educational expenses” would include expenses families face such as tuition at participating schools, textbooks, payment for tutoring, purchasing curriculum, and online learning programs as well as many more specific expenses that families frequently incur when trying to provide for the individual learning needs of a child.  Unused portions of the education savings account (ESA) would roll over into the following year until graduation.  Then, the amount unused in the account could be used for postsecondary education.

There is definitely support for school choice programs in Georgia according to the 2014 Georgia Education Survey, conducted for the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University. The survey found that more than seven in 10 respondents (70.3 percent) approve of Georgia’s tax credit scholarships. Additionally, more than eight in 10 respondents (80.5 percent) support Georgia’s scholarship program for students with special needs. Deeper examination of the responses reveals that Georgians support providing help for all families, regardless of income level. Nearly seven in 10 (69.4 percent) of respondents agree that tax credit scholarships should be provided for all families, regardless of income, while only 28.3 percent believe that those scholarships should be available to families based on financial need only. Likewise, there is broad support for innovative measures like education savings accounts (ESAs) similar to those that now exist in four other states. Nearly seven in 10 (67.8 percent) of Georgia respondents supported ESA programs like the one in Arizona.

Maureen Downey, an education writer for the AJC, carried out quite a hack job on the concept of education savings accounts in her article “Back from the Dead/ Voucher Bill Disguised as Education Savings Account.”  In it she characterized HB 243 as “a bad anti-public education bill has found new life.”  She went on to state,

But Hamilton’s bill is an extension of the fallacious argument that ‘the money should follow the students because it’s their money’.  It’s not the students’ money. It’s not the parents’ money.

Dear Georgia Taxpayers, Here’s a newsflash for you: You the parent have no right to claim ANY state education funds for your own children if you dare to avoid public education and opt to homeschool your children at your own expense, to utilize online virtual learning, or to pay tuition to a private school (gasp!).

Never-mind the fact that most school choice options in Georgia, including public charter schools, are barred from touching any local tax dollars that are, after all, collected to cover the education expenses of ALL children residing in that school district  in Georgia.  And never-mind the obvious reality that for the plethora of parents in Georgia who decide to pay for either private school or to homeschool, the countless dollars that they must leave behind are a treasure store for the collective community to reap in total for their collective use.  Those local dollars have never been touched nor would they be utilized in any way through education savings accounts as proposed in HB 243, which would use state funds only.  Clearly, Ms. Downey could not be bothered by the public will of Georgians who overwhelmingly support all school choice measures according to survey and polling data, including education savings accounts. Georgia parents don’t even deserve a debit card to access one drop of the funds set aside to educate all of Georgia’s children if they dare to avail themselves of school choice options of any kind!

Hopefully, the entitlement mentality of the argument put forward by Ms. Downey will be disregarded, and the citizens of Georgia will make it crystal clear that they support freedom of choice and a more equitable distribution of the education funding collected for all children in Georgia. When the 2015-2016 Legislative Session begins in Georgia, it should deliver the access to state education funds that is desperately needed to help all the children in Georgia who struggle with individual education challenges, regardless of what means their parents have chosen for their schooling.

-Rhonda Gatch

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It’s Moving Day

If you lived in a town like mine and had childrenarticle-0-188024AC00000578-907_634x657, moving day for your family would be virtually inevitable. My town is quaint with a great community vibe and good governance. We pay a little more in taxes to gain sidewalks, parks, and nice public facilities. My children have grown up here, but soon it will be moving day for us like so many other families I know.

When you go out on any sunny day here, you can’t help but notice all the young families with young children and strollers. But oddly enough, there are very few families of teens or young adults. My town is forever young, except for some retirees who are living out their life here since their adult children live elsewhere. Youth is invigorating in a community although not as invigorating for an economy. Professionals just starting out flock to this town. They start their families here…and then they leave.

What accounts for this diverse flight away from my town that seems to cycle every few years? The school system primarily. Yes, our cute town attracts trendy boutiques and mom and pops, but these ventures frequently do not survive. People move out of this community in droves as soon as they can sell their home and buy a much smaller and more expensive one up the road. Often they remain in this very same large county, but they opt for an overcrowded school that has better track records for educating children. They vote with their feet and pay for a public school with a much higher mortgage rate. It’s not a better home that they are purchasing but rather a more promising future for their kids.

You see, we have lots of great churches with preschools here and then a spattering of some decent elementary schools here and there. But middle schools and high schools are pretty frightening. The toddler years fly by in a frenzy with muffins for moms and donuts for dads. But after we put away the diapers and pull ups, new concerns capture our attention. Moms of preschoolers become obsessed with discussions of schools- public or private? Which brave souls will dare to homeschool? Who is fortunate enough to have one of those great public elementary schools assigned to their lucky zip code? Then when the word gets out and parents log onto a website like Great Schools, the moving plans are hastily made.

For such an ideal community, our schools are shockingly low performing. Secondary schools here face serious problems and fall short of the illusions of suburbia. The realty that Georgia ranks near the bottom in education compared to other states in our region, despite spending more than any of them, becomes apparent when you realize that failing schools are not limited to the boundaries of the inner city.

Parents could simply stay and offer their own children as guinea pigs or maybe start up a public charter school? But that process takes years as even the newly reinstated Georgia Charter Schools Commission is likely to reject the vast majority of parent and community planned schools. Meanwhile, our children, community, and local businesses are left to flounder. So like survivors fleeing for their lives from a sinking ship, we save our families if we possibly can. Who has time for rearranging the deck chairs when it’s the future of our children that is at risk?

Oh yes, we also have an additional tax for improving schools – at least for building attractive new ones. Our last Ed-SPLOST was assigned by our county’s board of education to make even more improvements to a high school that is one of the top ones in the nation. Meanwhile, families who once moved into a nice new neighborhood discover why it is known as having starter homes when they find out that their elementary school is the oldest one in the entire county. And alas, it has never received SPLOST funds….moving day is around the corner for many of these families.

Private schools are an option for some if they can afford it. But with some careful calculations around the kitchen table, moving into a smaller, older home with a higher mortgage rate starts to seem like a bargain if it buys a new zip code with a new school that is more successful at educating kids. But what about those families who cannot afford to move? They are trapped in a system that assigns schools to families by a series of numbers known as a zip code. Georgia does have a law known as Public School Transfer, but most great public schools quickly fill up and are then – or maybe even sooner? – listed as full and unavailable.

There are answers to these problems, but they are often not embraced or supported by enough families to force real changes and educational reforms. Many mayors are backing plans to bring new schools into their cities – as they should, in order for their communities to survive.  Georgia now ranks a “C” in school choice options on the Parent Power Index issued by the Center for Education Reform. Public charter schools and access to private schools need to be expanded to serve more families since they currently serve a measly two percent or less of Georgia’s students.

In the end, when school choice is expanded and families are no longer trapped in failing schools, more communities, local housing markets, and local economies will be allowed to thrive and stabilize as the result of new freedom to make good educational decisions according to an individual family’s needs – regardless of bank account or zip code.

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We the Parents will not Accept Excuses

Education reform is a unique issue because it is a nonpartisan one.  In a nation where our citizens and lawmakers are polarized to the point of total gridlock, education reform unites  leaders and parents of widely varying political views.  After all, our kids cannot even vote- but if they could- do you suppose that they would vote for uniform curriculums that follow a two-dimensional, monotonous model of one-size-fits-all methods and strategies from a bygone era of factory efficiency, mass scale, and minimal innovation and individualism?

Would our kids vote to increase their class size and decrease access to technological innovations, in order to secure early retirements and plump pension plans for teachers and administrators?  No, they obviously would not support today’s educational establishment that seeks to preserve its monopoly on power while denying innovation and individualization in the classroom and in communities that have very unique needs.  Our kids need champions who demand alternatives to the status quo which stubbornly clings to our failing educational system, destroying dreams, unique gifts and talents, and curiosity in its path.  Our kids need parents to speak up for them, refusing to accept the relentless pursuit of this tired educational factory model of uniformity that permeates many American schools.

Rest assured that there is a myriad of alternative methodologies and models from which to choose.  And these choices are not untried, thanks to daring independent schools, public magnet schools, and public charter schools.  Research-based education exists, but laziness within this sluggish, lethargic, and unresponsive system prevents its implementation.  Perhaps it seems risky to take bold action, but it is simply foolhardy to refuse to do so.  When kids are languishing every day, eight hours a day, in classrooms that do not begin to meet their needs, hand-wringing and sympathy do not suffice.

Do not tell me that you are a supporter of freedom, free enterprise, competition, or American innovation if you simultaneously stand with the established power-brokers and power-mongers of our public education system.  Do not tell me that you are frustrated and want to find solutions, too, when you deny every opportunity to implement reforms and community level changes.  Parents and concerned citizens must be unafraid and unyielding in calling for immediate action, innovation, and improvement in our children’s educational opportunities.

We must demand more choices, and we cannot accept the excuses of the past when it is the future which our kids will face that hangs in the balance.

-by Rhonda Gatch

What will it Take to Empower Parents in Georgia?

Parent Revolution in Los Angeles with Mayor Villaraigosa.
Parent Revolution in Los Angeles

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

In Louisiana, it took hurricane Katrina.  In Los Angeles, it took a “Parent Revolution.”  In Georgia, what will it take to empower parents to engage in their children’s education and to force the urgent and necessary changes that will guarantee a successful education and future for their kids?  A new bill that is working its way through the legislature in Georgia will open the gates to unprecedented input and control for parents over their children’s education.  Rep. Ed Lindsey, along with Rep. Brooks Coleman, Rep. Jan Jones, Rep. Mike Glanton, Rep. David Casas, and Rep. Alisha Thomas-Morgan, has sponsored HB 123: the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act.  The most current version of HB 123 in Georgia is linked here

The Parent and Teacher Empowerment act will allow a majority of parents OR a majority of teachers-faculty and instructional staff members- to convert an existing school into a charter school or to impose any of six possible turnaround models on a low-achieving school.  A low-achieving school is defined as a public school “that is in the lowest 20 percent of all public schools in this state based on school performance as determined by the Department of Education.”  Other guidelines that may lead to a school qualifying as “low-achieving” may include a school that has received an unacceptable rating on student achievement or on achievement gap closure.

While laws such as HB 123 are often referred to as “Parent Triggers,” the Georgia law that is being considered will also provide unprecedented power for teachers to effect complete makeovers of their schools without waiting decades for obvious problems to- perhaps? one day? -be addressed.  For communities which desire to convert their traditional public school into a public charter school, this act would give those parents and teachers new leverage. Most importantly, however, is a revolutionary transfer of decision-making power into the hands of parents.  Rather than continuing to waste the critical, precious hours of students every day in a classroom where learning has not been taking place, parents of these students can organize, sign a petition, or cast a vote that will transform their school.

For communities who simply want to force improvements in their own neighborhood schools, the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act provides six possible turnaround models:

  • Removal of school personnel, including the principal.
  • Complete “reconstitution” of the school, removing all personnel, appointing a new principal, and hiring all new staff.
  • Relocation of a student, by the parent, into other public schools in the local school system according to a list provided by that school system.
  • Employment of a management team or monitor.
  • Preparation/implementation of an intensive student achievement plan.
  • Complete restructuring of the school’s governance plan or its internal organization.

Although at times there have been some minute improvements in academic achievement in Georgia’s schools, and some schools are very successful, the stubborn fact remains that this state struggles to attract businesses and lacks a well-prepared work force.  Georgia continues to score near the bottom in national education measures.  Most parents  appear to be lulled into hopeless acceptance of a system that is continuing to fail Georgia’s students.  But this bill turns the current paradigm on its head and then gives parents and teachers new seats at the table.

Accepting the status quo and its control over your child’s education in Georgia public schools is no longer going to be the necessary reality after the passage of the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act.  The educational establishment cannot usurp the decision making authority of parents over their own children’s education any longer if this law is passed.  The status quo educational leaders and lobbyists for the educational establishment in this state expect parents to sit down, shut up, bake some cookies, and “Leave it to the professionals.”  With power to make crucial decisions and determinations about educational strategies, curriculum, models, and faculty, parents no longer must settle for being sidelined and ignored.  Georgia parents, teachers, and students should not silently wait years and years on the DOE- Department of Education- plan to work its supposed, repeatedly-promised magic when there is a genuine opportunity to be empowered instead.

-Rhonda Gatch
Co-Founder, Moms for School Choice

HB 123 Parent & Teacher Empowerment Act

The Georgia General Assembly is currently crafting a parent trigger law, HB 123, the Parent and Teacher Empowerment Act.  The bill will offer parents true power in decision making for their children’s schools and education.  When a majority of parents sign a petition at a public school that is a low-achieving one, they may begin a process to transform that school by either enacting  one of SIX turnaround measures or by converting the school into a charter school.

Significantly, this particular bill enables TEACHERS to organize as a group and initiate the process to transform their school, thus providing teachers with unprecedented power to introduce reforms at their school.

Read the current version of this bill by clicking the LINK here, before it moves on to the GA State Senate….

The Legislative Session in Georgia

What’s Happening today in the Georgia General Assembly?

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Tracking a Bill in the Georgia General Assembly

Legislator sees need for a new law or changes in existing law and decides to introduce a bill.
Legislator goes to Office of Legislative Counsel. There, attorney advises legislator on legal issues and drafts bill.
Legislator files bill with the Clerk of the House or Secretary of the Senate. On legislative day after filing, bill is formally introduced. In chamber, bill’s title is read during period of first readings. Immediately after first reading, presiding officer assigns bill to a standing committee.
In the House only, on next legislative day, Clerk reads bill’s title (second reading) in chamber, although actual bill is now in committee. In Senate, second reading comes after bill is reported favorably from committee.
Bill considered by committee. Author and other legislators may testify. If controversial, public hearings may be held. Final Committee action reported in a written report. Committee options are:
• Recommend Bill or Resolution Do Pass;
• Recommend Do NOT Pass;
• Recommend Do Pass with changes (amendments or substitutes);
• Hold Bill.
Clerk or Secretary prepares a General Calendar of bills favorably reported from committee.
• Legislation which was second read the day before is placed on a calendar in numeric order for floor action prior to the the Rules Committee meeting to choose bills for consideration.
• After a certain point, set by rule, the Rules Committee meets and prepares a Rules Calendar for the next day’s floor consideration from bills on General Calendar.
• The presiding officer calls up bills from the Rules Calendar for floor action in order as they appear on this calendar.
Once presiding officer calls bill up from Rules Calendar, Clerk or Secretary reads bill’s title (third reading). Bill is now ready for floor debate, amendments, and voting. After debate, main question is called and members vote. if bill is approved by majority of total membership of that house , it is sent to the other house.
Bill is passed if:
• If second chamber passes bill, it is returned to chamber where bill was introduced.
• If first chamber rejects changes and second chamber insists, a conference committee may be appointed. Committee report is accepted by both chambers.
Bill is enrolled and sent to the Governor (if requested). Otherwise, all enrolled bills sent to Governor following adjournment sine die.
Governor may sign bill or do nothing, and bill becomes law. Governor may veto bill, which requires two-thirds of members of each house to override.
Act and other laws enacted at the session are printed in the Georgia Laws series. Also, act is incorporated into the Official Code of Georgia Annotated. Act becomes effective the following July 1, unless a different effective date is provided in act.