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New school year could mean new school for kids

Beginning July 1, a new day will dawn for Georgia parents and their children. For the first time, the state will have a uniform system allowing parents more power to choose the public school within their district that best fits their children's needs.

If there is space available, and parents agree to provide transportation to the new school, a student can transfer. Districts are not prohibited from providing transportation to transferring students.

Parents may choose a different school for a variety of reasons. It could be because a school is closer to a job or the home of a caretaker. It could be for more academic rigor. It could even be to get better services for their special needs child.

As the sponsor of this new public school option law, it was not my job to know every reason or dictate "good" reasons for families seeking transfers. My job, along with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, was to provide options for parents in a school system that has only one constitutional obligation: to provide a quality education to every Georgia child.

But our best intentions for children and families are already encountering roadblocks from the education establishment.

This bill -- HB251 -- was signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue just a few weeks ago, yet some of Georgia's 180 school districts are crafting ways to deny these new choices for parents to transfer their children to other public schools. We're not talking about children departing for private schools. We're talking about kids wanting another choice within public education. And stil, some in the education bureaucracy stand in the school house door.

They are actively preventing parents the opportunity to transfer their students to a school that might be smaller, where siblings can attend together, or out of a school that is underperforming.

Among the myths being perpetuated about this plan are:

· Myth: HB251 would encourage a stampede of children from "underperforming" schools. Fact: Transfers are already permitted for "failing" schools under the federal No Child Left Behind statute and only about 2 percent of students choose this option. We don't expect significantly different numbers under HB251.

· Myth: Transferring will overcrowd schools and create additional problems. Fact: The receiving school must have space to accommodate any HB251 transfers.

· Myth: Districts can cherry pick the students with the highest grades or attendance records. Fact: Space is the only criteria that can be used to allow transfers. Transfers under HB251 must be open to all students.

· Myth: Sports shopping would become rampant as kids would use the transfer option to move to schools with the best athletic teams. Fact: The Georgia High School Association, which regulates competitive sports already has rules regarding transfers and prohibits them for the purpose of sports.

Local school boards need to remember this is an era of change. They are supposed to be responsive to one customer: parents and their children. Change can be difficult, but the children we invest our tax dollars and time in are well worth it.

I look forward to working with school districts to empower parents, and to comply with the spirit of this new law. When it comes to educating our children, there are no "do-overs" and "no try again next times." We have to do this right the first time and with a sense of urgency. Georgia needs to become a leader in education. It's time to abandon what we know is not working and embrace change. Providing parents with more options is one way to do that. At the same time, we have to work feverishly to bring all Georgia public schools to a level of quality that every child deserves.

HB251 is just the start of what I think will be an awakening of parents who are tired of business as usual. Parents are beginning to demand to know more about how our tax dollars are spent and the services they get in return. We in education are in the business of transforming lives. It's time to begin that important work and leave the status quo -- not our children -- behind.

Alisha Thomas Morgan, a Democrat, is a state representative from Austell, and a member of the House Education Committee.