Of the many bills that will be under consideration by the Georgia legislature in 2019, one that we are particularly excited about is a piece of legislation creating “Individualized Education Accounts” (IEAs), which aim to improve our state’s Special Needs Scholarship by removing eligibility barriers and making it more flexible and reflective of each student’s specific needs.
Why do we think it’s necessary to enhance the current law? Because IEAs will allow students like Seth—who have special needs that merit educational alternatives—to get the help they need to learn in an appropriate environment and thrive in life. And it empowers parents—who are best equipped to make decisions for their children—to choose the educational setting that best serves their interests and needs.
Like many kids his age, Seth is an active nine-year old who loves math, reading books (particularly the Harry Potter series), and music. He’s also very energetic and excels at swimming and ice skating. But because he has autism spectrum disorder, Seth struggles to focus in a traditional classroom and acts out when he’s not challenged or given opportunities for physical activity.
Sadly, because Seth was non-verbal from a young age, he started public school kindergarten with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and was placed in a self-contained classroom where he was given academic work well below his abilities. Frustrated by his lack of progress, Seth’s parents got a Special Needs Scholarship and moved him into private school in first grade, where he was more academically challenged. Yet even here, Seth acted out and they knew that this setting didn’t work either.
So, Seth’s parents decided to homeschool their son. His mother now customizes Seth’s academic environment and his school day follows a rhythm of physical activity and school work. For example, Seth might jump on the trampoline for five minutes followed by a focused math or language arts session. Today, Seth performs at his grade level—far beyond his performance in other educational settings.
How will IEAs further enhance Seth’s learning environment? By adding more flexibility to the current law, the unique and burdensome expenses currently incurred by Seth’s parents—music, speech and occupational therapy, curricula, and communication tutoring—will be covered. And for thousands of other families like Seth’s, this means that the scholarship program will benefit children of all income levels and backgrounds—not just those who can afford private or homeschool educations requiring expensive supplemental resources.
Soon, a legislative study committee will discuss needed improvements to the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship. We hope Seth’s story will encourage them to advance IEA’s for all Georgia families with children with special needs.
President Trump recently signed an order aiming to streamline welfare in the U.S., which is leading lawmakers to take a deeper look at the many programs that make up the complex system.
It’s a positive first step, as the current structure reinforces dependency and doesn’t reward hard work, nor does it allow recipients to strive for self-sufficiency. For example, the average welfare recipient is a single mom with two children, but with the current design, she will lose benefits with marriage and/or a pay raise.
Georgia Center for Opportunity has worked over the last couple of years with leading welfare expert, Erik Randolph, Senior Fellow with both the Illinois Policy Institute and Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Foundation, to dissect Georgia’s failing assistance programs. The data is shocking and disappointing, proving a system that should be lending a helping hand to recipients is actually hurting them instead.
Randy Hicks, President and CEO of Georgia Center for Opportunity, recently wrote on the importance of taking a compassionate and commonsense approach to welfare reform.
“We believe there is a better approach and it entails stabilizing the safety net for those who truly need it, adopting a “work first” approach for those who are able and creating incentives to form marriages and households,” Hicks wrote on FoxNews.com.
Read Randy’s full op-ed here, click here.
You’ve probably heard the old adage, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day … Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” And while this nugget of age-old wisdom seems like common-sense compassion to most folks, in reality most governmental welfare programs in America—though well-intentioned—are neither compassionate nor based in common sense. Instead of helping men and women become self-sufficient and take care of their families, these programs trap folks in cycles of generational dependency and poverty—and keep them reliant on the government for their daily catch.
Despite this, there’s hope on the horizon. In a positive first step toward addressing the vast, unconnected, and dehumanizing welfare system that deprives people of the dignity that comes with steady and meaningful work, President Trump recently signed a sweeping Executive Order aimed at overhauling America’s broken welfare system. The ultimate goal is to scrap the existing collection of complex, wasteful, inefficient, and budget-breaking programs and agencies with a system that actually works.
And while it’s definitely encouraging to see comprehensive action taken at the federal level to tackle welfare reform, we believe that the best solutions to help our neighbors escape poverty occur at the locally. That’s why we here at Georgia Center for Opportunity are working hard to promote common-sense policy solutions in Georgia that restore dignity to welfare recipients. How? By consolidating confusing and overlapping welfare programs and designate a single agency to manage welfare cases—all while applying safeguards to weed out fraud and end benefit cliffs and marriage penalties that keep people from learning how to fish on their own.
Taken together, we believe these reforms will convert welfare into workfare and put Georgians squarely on a path that scholars call the “success sequence”’—a three-step approach that helps people turn their lives around by getting a good education, which leads to a stable job and in turn leads to a flourishing, successful home life.
With more than 20 percent of Georgians on some form of public assistance, it’s more important than ever that we focus on overhauling welfare the right way—with compassion and common sense. It’s time to unravel decades of haphazardly cobbled together programs—each with conflicting interests, standards, and procedures—that cost taxpayers more than $23 billion annually and ultimately do not deliver the intended goal of teaching folks to fish for themselves for a lifetime.
Expanded education options will soon be available to thousands of Georgia families, thanks to two measures approved in the closing hours of the General Assembly’s session last week. The last-minute approvals came at a time when school-choice advocates were losing hope that meaningful action would take place on parental school choice reforms this year. Both bills now await Governor Nathan Deal’s signature before becoming law.
The first measure, House Bill 217, nearly doubles the size of Georgia’s popular Tax Credit Scholarship Program beginning in 2019. Currently, the program is capped at $58 million per year, but the new bill raises that cap to $100 million. These tax-credit scholarships are available to help students from low-income, working-class, and minority families attend high-quality private schools that better meet their academic needs. More than 13,000 students in Georgia are benefiting from these scholarships right now.
Unfortunately, the bill also contains a “sunset provision” that pushes the cap back down to $58 million beginning in 2029. But lawmakers will have ample opportunity to eliminate that sunset over the next few years, particularly as demand for the Tax Credit Scholarship Program will undoubtedly continue to grow. Here at Georgia Center for Opportunity, we’ll advocate for eliminating this sunset to ensure the program remains well-funded perpetually.
The second measure, House Bill 787, authorizes more funding for charter schools, bringing them into greater parity with funding for traditional public schools. “This bill does not achieve full funding equity, but it is a significant step forward for Georgia students who are enrolled in a state charter school,” said Tony Roberts, President and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “This bill will help ensure that students and families who chose a public charter school because it best meets the needs of their children will not be financially penalized.”
Although acknowledging these significant strides for school choice during the legislative session, school-choice advocates were disappointed that lawmakers fell short of passing House Bill 482. If approved, the measure would have made Georgia the seventh state to pass Education Savings Accounts (ESA), an innovative way for parents to pay for non-public educational options for their children.
As Georgia’s 2018 legislative session marches to a close this week, will lawmakers act to expand Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program? Legislation pending in the state Senate, if passed, would yield huge benefits for families in desperate need of educational options.
First, a bit of background. Originally passed in 2008, the tax credit scholarships currently provide up to $58 million in scholarships so that students from low-income, working-class, and minority families can attend high-quality private schools that better meet their academic needs.
Here’s how the program works: The law allows private citizens and corporations to receive tax credits for donations to nonprofit Student Scholarship Organizations, which then administer scholarships across the state on behalf of needy kids. In 2015 alone, over 13,000 students received scholarships. The beautiful part of the program is that it creates the opportunity for Georgians to be charitable in support of school choice, while also benefiting families in need of better academic options.
Because the program is capped at $58 million—a limitation that’s been in place for a decade now—families and students have been waitlisted trying to access the scholarships. Thankfully, House Bill 217 would take an important stride toward reducing that problem by raising the cap to $65 million.
Previous versions of the bill were even more ambitious by raising the cap to $100 million in a graduated course of six years, effectively doubling the size of the program and bringing educational choice to as many as 130,000 students. Although the current version is pared down, it is still a step in the right direction.
House Bill 217 could come up for a floor vote in the Senate this week. But, as Atlanta-Journal Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield writes, the bill faces a new hurdle—a proposal to automatically sunset tax credits after a certain period of time:
Why should that kind of program be subjected to an automatic sunset, and all the uncertainty that creates for families? As Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle told me, to explain why he cautions against putting a sunset on the program, “these scholarships more times than not follow students for most, if not all, of their k-12 education.” Blindly ending the program will truly harm those students.
The idea seems to be that if something is worth doing, it must be worth stopping — without regard to how much good it’s doing.
Requiring more data reporting (as this bill does) and a periodic review of the program that stops short of automatically ending it would increase accountability without adding needless uncertainty. If that’s what senators really want, that’s what they should do.
As the General Assembly enters its final weeks of the session, now is the time for lawmakers to act on this crucial bill. Indeed, heading into the 2018 election year, lawmakers should have education as one of their top priorities. According to a January poll conducted by the University of Georgia, Peach State voters named “education” as the single most important issue facing the state today.
According to scholars, America is increasingly becoming a society polarized between higher- and lower-income people. Whereas until recently a majority of Americans were considered middle class, now good jobs for those who only have a high school diploma are rapidly disappearing—while those with a good education reap the benefits of well-paying jobs and a booming economy.
In short, this increasing economic divergence means it’s harder to achieve the American Dream of upward mobility and a middle class lifestyle. And studies show that not only is the middle class now smaller in size than the top and bottom rungs of the economic ladder combined, the gap between rich and poor is increasing.
Here in Georgia, the statistics are particularly grim. In 2016, 25% of Georgia children were living in poverty—with 60% of all students eligible for free or reduced school lunches. Altogether, 39% of our children grow up in single-parent homes and are six times more likely to be poor. And while graduation rates have increased recently, Georgia still ranks in the bottom five states nationally for drop-out rates.
The bottom line is that 21% of Georgians age 18 to 24 are not successfully transitioning to adulthood. This means they are not enrolled in school, not working, and have no degree beyond a high school diploma. Ultimately, it also means that the devastating cycle of generational poverty will be repeated—leaving little hope of moving into the middle class.
So, how do we help our students turn their lives around? We must give them tools to succeed—specifically by expanding school choice options that put them on what scholars call the “success sequence.” A simple concept, this sequence teaches that a good education leads to a stable job—which in turn leads to a flourishing home life and overall success in life.
Clearly, the all-important first step is getting a good education. And here the data show that expanding school choice is particularly good for poorer students because more competition in education means better schools and improved student outcomes.
The good news is Georgia is a leader in educational opportunity—with more than 17,000 students benefitting from expanded school choice programs. And these programs are popular—with 84 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of independents, and 55 percent of Democrats supporting school choice. Among Millennials and minorities, support is even stronger—and growing—with 74 percent of Latinos, 72 percent of African Americans, and 75 percent of Millennials in favor.
The fact is that most students will continue to be educated in traditional public schools. But we must continue to advocate for expanded school choice and recognize the obvious fact each child is different and many underserved students will be more successful in schools that best meet their needs. Expanded school choice allows parents to send their kids to a school they believe best fits their child—placing them on a success sequence that breaks the cycle of poverty and creates the opportunity for upward mobility and a satisfied life.
Isn’t this what we want for all American kids—and not just the wealthy?