Georgia Education Bill Preserves Inequities

Georgia’s public education system is facing a new piece of redistributive reform legislation though as written, the law will have the opposite effect. State Rep. Valencia Stovall (D-Ellenwood) introduced Thursday House Bill 788, the Quality Basic Education Act. The law aims to decouple a student’s designated school district from where they must attend school. The bill is intended to help students in struggling, usually poor schools attend better ones, but it will likely carry long-term negative consequences and fail to address educational disparity at its root.

The mechanism used to accomplish said decoupling is flawed. The bill would allow a student’s legal guardian to “enroll a student in a school using the address of an individual residing in the school’s attendance zone who has authorized such use.” Students whose school districts are doing poorly can leave them, but only with the help of someone living in a better one. As such, the law limits itself to helping only those students in bad situations who are already well-connected. Clearly, lawmakers understand the law’s limited scope, because H.B. 788 would likely not have gained traction if it genuinely risked overcrowding Georgia’s best public school districts.

Although a few lucky students might be able to attend better schools, their access necessarily runs through a private individual, who has the authority to revoke it. Though that scenario is unlikely, the mere possibility of low-income students being forced to manage the expectations of a benefactor just to stay at their new school undermines whatever empowering effect the law is supposed to have. These students aren’t stupid; they will know they’re more disposable than their more privileged peers.

The future implications of the law are also troubling — instead of improving disadvantaged schools, Georgia lawmakers are trying to give select students a way out of them. The proposal follows previously failed attempts to more directly address the problem. Namely, the Opportunity School District proposal, a proposed state constitutional amendment which would have allowed increased government intervention in failing public schools.

It’s important to note the good intentions underlying H.B. 788. The bill screams of desperation aimed at circumventing Georgia’s political logjams — like the aforementioned 2016 referendum — to help students in struggling school districts. Stovall should be commended for her efforts to change a flawed educational system, but the short-term benefits of helping disadvantaged students access better, wealthier  school districts could easily be outweighed by precedents the law might set: A lawmaker could justify opposition to future spending meant to improve struggling schools by arguing that those students can just find a wealthy patron to help them attend a better one.

While the law may help some students pull themselves up by the bootstraps, most will not be able to. Instead of giving some low-income students access to better education through a private intermediary, Georgia lawmakers should concentrate on ameliorating disparities in the public school system, no matter how difficult. Though that’s easy for a second-year college student to say, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal agrees. His 2016 Opportunity School District proposal reads, “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to help these children.” H.B. 788 doesn’t even come close to satisfying that obligation.

Isaiah Sirois is a College sophomore from Nashua, N.H.

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