Just this past week, Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarship program reached its cap of allowable donation commitments (currently, $58 million) in well under a month. That’s the earliest the cap has been reached in the program’s history, three and a half months earlier than last year, when the cap was reached on May 9th.
Add to the early cap the fact that Student Scholarship Organizations (SSO’s), those groups tasked with distributing tax credit scholarships, nearly universally report long waiting lists of students seeking a scholarship and it becomes clear that the program is in high demand.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that a school choice program in Georgia is overrun with interest.
Charter schools have long experienced high demand, with lotteries becoming necessary to decide which children are selected among the many who want to attend. Of course, parents are expressing their desire for additional choices in other ways, including sacrificing to send their children to private schools and, in an ever growing trend, teaching their children at home.
Given Georgia’s record on educational achievement, it’s really no wonder parents and their kids are looking for something better. That said, the desire for choice often has as much to do about wanting to escape an unsuitable school environment as with academic achievement.
That’s exactly why we’re hosting a rally at the Capitol tomorrow to celebrate National School Choice Week. While we are happy about the progress Georgia has made in increasing education options in recent years, less than 1 percent of Georgia’s more than 1.6 million students has been able to access Georgia’s school choice options.
Our tax credit program cap of $58 million annually may seem like a lot but compared to other states, it’s just a beginning of what’s needed to meet the demand. Florida’s program, for example, is currently capped at $286 million annually and grows each year automatically while Louisiana’s program has no cap at all.
Not only are Georgia’s current school choice programs limited, but for the 57% of Georgia students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, options are limited yet again because – unlike wealthier families – they are often unable to move to a district with better public schools.
The net result is that if the local public school isn’t suitable for them, they have nowhere else to turn.
With many billions of dollars spent in Georgia each year on public education, there is no excuse for a child being trapped in any particular school. We should demand more for Georgia’s children.
Below is the first edition of our Capitol Update newsletter for 2014. If you’d like to receive future editions in your inbox, sign up here.
2014 Session Begins
By: Eric Cochling, VP of Public Policy
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Welcome to the first edition of our Capitol Update for 2014. As we have done for several years, we will be sending out regular updates to let you know what’s happening under the gold dome (good, bad or otherwise) during the 2014 session of the Georgia General Assembly. Should you have any questions or comments about the content of these updates, please email Eric Cochling.
New Year, Election Near
The 152nd session of the Georgia General Assembly started on Monday. Since this is an election year, the session promises to be a short one as members of the Assembly look to campaign and raise money, things they cannot legally do while in session.
If this week has been any indication, activity will be fast and furious until the end of session, which is expected to end in mid-March this year. It doesn’t help the sense of urgency that the state is on the verge of moving our primary election from July to May. Legislation moving the primary election made its way through both houses of the General Assembly this week and is now on the way to the Governor for his signature.
With the elections looming and based on conversations we have had with lawmakers, we also expect the legislature to steer clear of politically divisive legislation. That said, “politically divisive” is in the eye of the beholder and you can never be certain what bills will generate controversy. It is safe to say that all legislators hope to leave this session, in particular, having made as few of their constituents mad as possible.
Legislation, Study Committees, and Rumors to Watch
– Education –
This week, Governor Deal proposed a $42.3 billion budget – more than half of which is coming from the federal government!! – that includes $547 million in additional funding for Georgia’s public school system to fund teacher pay increases and adding back days to the school calendar.
In other news, House Resolution 486, sponsored by Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) would amend the Georgia Constitution to allow municipalities created in 2005 or later (and contiguous municipalities) to form city school systems.
In the category of “Finally!,” Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) says that he is planning to introduce legislation to address some of the problems created by Georgia’s zero-tolerance law relative to weapons on school property. It would be great if accidentally leaving a pocket knife in your car didn’t result in a criminal record.
– Criminal Justice Reform –
Georgia’s Criminal Justice Reform Council released its third set of recommendations in three years on January 10th, this time focusing on reforming aspects of prisoner reentry. GCO testified before the council in November and we are happy to see that many of the recommendations from our Prisoner Reentry Working Group were included in the council’s report.
The council’s official recommendations include the following:
- Each prisoner should have a Transition Accountability Plan initiated at the time they enter prison and consistently used during incarceration that will determine the best path to successful reentry;
- State corrections agencies should work more closely with private agencies and returning citizens to locate and secure sustainable, safe, and affordable housing;
- The food stamp ban on offenders convicted of a drug-related felony should be lifted, provided that they maintain a certificate of program completion issued by the Department of Corrections showing that they are in good standing and in compliance;
- Judges should be allowed to modify driver’s license restrictions for those convicted of minor drug offenses not involving a vehicle so that they are able to operate a vehicle;
- In hiring for state employment, job candidates should not be asked about criminal history until the interview stage.
- Negligent hiring liability protection should be provided for companies willing to hire ex-offenders under certain conditions.
It is very likely that we will see these recommendations included in a criminal justice reform bill this session. We will keep you posted.
– Marriage and Family –
It’s difficult to deny the harm that no-fault divorce causes to children. It’s also difficult to know exactly what needs to be done to help protect kids from unecessary divorce. House Bill 684, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine), offers at least part of the answer.
This legislation would only affect couples with minor children, where the grounds for divorce are irreconcilable differences (no-fault). In those cases, the legislation would require divorcing parents to take an eight-hour course that explains how divorce will impact everyone involved, especially the children. It would also require a “discernment period” of 320 days before a court could grant the divorce. The waiting period could be waived in cases involving abuse, neglect, or abandonment and, importantly, the existence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment could be proven to a judge outside of the public eye and public record.
The thinking is that during the discernment period, tensions could cool and the couple could experience life apart – before making it permanent – so that they could see how their divorce would impact their children over the course of the year (including birthdays, holidays, etc.). While not a silver bullet to solve the marriage and divorce crisis in the country, this is certainly a good way to encourage couples with children to stay together.
Visit Allies for Family Life and look for “Children’s Hope for Family Act” for more information.
– Child Welfare –
According to this report, it appears that Georgia is moving quickly to obtain a federal waiver that would allow the state more flexibility in how it spends federal foster care dollars. Governor Deal has indicated that the new flexibility would be used to create new public/private partnerships that would allow private agencies to take a lead role in providing foster care and other child protection services. The Casey Family Foundation has praised the use of waivers and privatization in other states where it has been a success and called for extending the availability of waivers to the states beyond this year.
Our team continues to serve on the Governor’s Office of Children and Families CSEC Task Force, which is making real strides in raising awareness of child sex trafficking in Georgia and finding effective ways to rescue and serve victims, while reducing demand. The subgroup on which we serve recently developed a certification program for businesses that commit to fighting child sex trafficking called Champions for Safe Children. We are now in the process of delivering trainings for interested companies around the metro area. Next up: developing similar certification programs for cities and neighborhoods.
Please join us for our 4th annual School Choice Celebration & Rally on Tuesday, January 28th, from noon to 2pm at the Georgia State Capitol. Our special guest will be Keshia Knight Pulliam (Cosby Show and House of Payne). Registration is encouraged.
The General Assembly has been around a while and like any old institution it has developed its own language. James Salzer at the AJC put this glossary together to help us outsiders keep track of what’s happening.
Thanks to Jamie Lord, our director of government affairs, and Jacob Stubbs, our legislative intern and John Jay Fellowship alumnus for their able contributions to this update.