Georgians have many reasons to give thanks

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Benita-Dodd

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation hosted the 2019 Georgia Legislative Policy Forum on November 15, an event it has held since 2010. In a year of landmark policy successes, the Forum was a reminder of how far Georgia has come and how much Georgians have to be grateful for.

At that first event – held on a Saturday in the fall, and never again on a Saturday after complaints about college football – criminal justice reform was a primary goal. One in 13 Georgians was under some form of correctional supervision, the highest rate in the nation and a costly challenge, both financially and socially.

Flash forward to today. In April, during Second Chance Month, the Foundation hosted Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, fresh off his success in sponsoring bipartisan legislation based on Georgia’s criminal justice reforms. His FIRST STEP (Formerly Incarcerated Re-enter Society Transformed, Safely Transitioning Every Person) Act was inspired by the reforms championed by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, who made the issue the cornerstone of his two-term administration.

Today, Georgia is a national role model for alternatives to incarceration, community-based treatments, special courts and juvenile justice, with a focus on reducing recidivism. Education and training opportunities help prepare inmates to return to their communities and families as productive citizens. The formerly incarcerated who seek a second chance have more opportunities than ever, and advocates continue to work to improve those opportunities.

Then there are the advances made in Georgia’s education opportunities. Once, students trapped in failing public schools had limited options. Today, student scholarship organizations facilitate scholarships to private schools; public charter schools, charter systems and online academies help families find the best education environment for their child without confining them to their ZIP code.

Does choice make a difference? According to the “Nation’s Report Card,” the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), on average Georgia charter school students scored at least 13 points above district students in both math and reading. Georgia charter schools are also bridging the gap for African-American students, who scored at least 18 points higher in reading and mathematics than their district peers, NAEP found.

While it’s positive news, the work is not done. Georgia must expand choice, raise NAEP scores and narrow the achievement gap between students from low-income and higher-income families: NAEP shows while Georgia’s scores are slowly improving, the achievement gap is not shrinking.

This year, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has given more Georgians a reason to hope. On the healthcare front, he is seeking unprecedented waivers from the federal government that would give the state greater flexibility. They would help ensure low-income Georgians, as well as those with the highest medical bills, can access affordable, quality healthcare without creating an unsustainable taxpayer burden. This would include paying the premiums for some working Georgians’ employer-sponsored plans.

While the governor’s Georgians First Commission is working to achieve his goal of making Georgia the best state for small business, the employment rate in the state is probably the reason more Georgians than ever can celebrate this Thanksgiving: Georgia’s jobless rate of 3.4% in October matched the all-time low set in 2000, and the state set new highs for hiring as well. That was a far cry from the 10.6% jobless rate in October 2010, in the midst of the economic downturn. The Foundation hosted its first legislative policy forum in November 2010.

With more Georgians with more money in their wallets to celebrate this Thanksgiving, it’s no surprise AAA predicts the second-highest Thanksgiving travel volume since it began tracking in 2000. Travelers could briefly lose that sense of gratitude, but the future is bright.

Back in 2010 at the Foundation’s first forum, Bob Poole of the Reason Foundation gave a presentation on high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. The I-85 HOT lanes opened one year later, and were expanded last year. Work is under way to eventually create a seamless express lane network in the metro area. Georgians can set out to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving knowing innovative technology is already helping smooth travel across the state.

[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 22, 2019).]