Let’s say you’re a Republican voter in Georgia. If you’re like those polled recently by the AJC, you probably think Gov. Nathan Deal and state legislators are doing a good job. You also most likely think Deal was wrong to veto the religious-liberty and campus-carry bills, and that legislators ought to pass each again.
But the governor won’t be on your primary ballot Tuesday, and three in four incumbent GOP legislators face no primary opposition. Nor will your ballot ask you about religious liberty or campus carry. That doesn’t mean you can’t send all of them a message about holding true to a principle they often espouse but hardly ever act on.
There is one question on GOP primary ballots this year: “Should Georgia empower parents with the right to use the tax dollars allocated for the education of their children, allowing them the freedom to choose among public, private, virtual and home schools?”
Republicans have been talking about “empowering parents” and being “free to choose” since Milton Friedman literally wrote the book on injecting competition into public education. But only rarely have they put those words into action, and Georgia has been falling behind.
A comparison to Florida is instructive. Both states have vouchers for students with disabilities, with similar eligibility rates (13 percent of students in Florida, 11 percent in Georgia). Yet Florida students eligible for the voucher are four times as likely as their Georgia counterparts to enroll in the program.
Or consider tax-credit scholarship programs. While Georgia’s cap remains stuck at $58 million, even though the cap is now met on the first day of each year, Florida’s is now almost $450 million and will grow to $559 million for the school year starting this fall; the growth alone is almost double what Georgia allows annually. Lawmakers in Florida have done that even though the scholarships are worth an average of almost $2,000 a year more than Georgia’s, perhaps because they realize that’s still far cheaper than educating those children in public schools. Eligible students in Florida are 13 times more likely to enroll than those in Georgia.
Then there are the choice programs Georgia doesn’t even have. Eight states, including Alabama and South Carolina, allow some kind of income-tax deduction or credit for expenses such as private-school tuition. The eight include some states known for their good public schools: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin. In other words, this isn’t about bashing public schools.
Of course, that’s exactly how it is portrayed by choice opponents and education status quoists. They refuse to see, or maybe just to acknowledge, that allowing competition tends to improve all: the innovators, the entrenched incumbents, teachers and other employees — and above all, students.
Politicians may be known for watching opinion polls, but what they really fear is the ballot box. Georgia Republicans have demonstrated that before. Although polls had long indicated public support for ethics reform, it was a 2012 ballot question about limiting lobbyists’ gifts to legislators — backed by 87 percent of primary voters that year — that spurred a 2013 law to do just that.
I’d say it’s time for another message from the voters.