It’s a new year, which means Georgia lawmakers have a new opportunity to expand educational choice to more families and students.

Last year, a proposal that would have provided public school families in the bottom 25 percent of Georgia schools with $6,000 to spend on private school tuition or homeschooling fell short despite bipartisan support and an endorsement from Gov. Brian Kemp.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush

As surrounding states embrace private school choice programs, some available to all families, it’s time for Georgia to go big for students.

I’ve heard all the myths about what will happen to public schools if parents move their kids elsewhere and those schools have less funding. In reality, that’s already happening. You could call it school choice the old-fashioned way: Families with financial means buy or rent real estate in districts so they can access the best schools. Families with limited or no options remain mired in a system that’s not meeting their needs.

The sky will not fall if we give those families and students the opportunities they deserve.

When I became Governor of Florida, our academic landscape was bleak. Only one-third of third graders could read on grade level, and close to half of fourth graders were functionally illiterate. Too many students were dropping out of school, and our graduation rate was last in the nation.

We knew we had to take bold steps to improve our education system, and choice was a cornerstone of my education agenda. There were far too many families in Florida who couldn’t access the schooling their children needed. We embarked on ambitious parental choice programs, and all schools got better.

Today, Florida has improved student outcomes and is home to a thriving choice system that includes traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools and a universal education savings account program that allows parents to customize their child’s K-12 journey. We now rank in the top 10 for student achievement, and our high school graduation rate has increased to 90 percent.

Fears that expanding options for families would lead to weakened public schools, especially in rural areas, proved to be unfounded. A vast majority of Florida’s rural families (83 percent) still choose district schools. School choice did not disrupt the traditional system; it created alternatives and allowed more students to find the best fit for their specific learning needs.

Even if you don’t think of the Florida story as a roadmap for progress in Georgia, you need look no further than public opinion on education and choice to make the case for change.

Recent polling shows just 38 percent of respondents believe K-12 education in Georgia is going in the right direction at the local district level. Parents, however, show strong support for education savings accounts (77 percent) and vouchers (71 percent) that would enable them to access private schooling and other options for their children.

Georgia has had two school choice programs on the books for almost 20 years, but they are limited by funding and eligibility. Now is the time to expand, and that doesn’t have to happen all at once.

It’s incredible that states like Arkansas have moved from little choice to universal choice very quickly, but most states historically have started smaller and grown their programs over time. That was the case in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. Florida and North Carolina now have universal programs, and Tennessee is poised to join them this year.

As lawmakers head into session, it’s important to remember that while school choice as a concept generates fierce debate, school choice in practice generates positive outcomes for students and families. Georgia families need to know that political rhetoric will not win out over their reality.

Breaking down educational barriers and centering students’ needs should always be a north star for policymakers. We know from decades of research in dozens of states that school choice helps kids get in where they fit in.

Georgia came so close to expanding opportunity last year. Here’s hoping 2024 will be the year of school choice in the Peach State.

Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. He is the founder and chair of ExcelinEd and ExcelinEd in Action.

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