By Ben Scafidi
For The Times
Georgia lawmakers are vowing to pass a sweeping school choice proposal this year that would break new ground in offering a host of educational options for student across our state.
Known as Education Scholarship Accounts or ESAs, the plan is the newest model in school choice found throughout the country. For students whose families choose to leave a public school, the plan would deposit $5,500 in state taxpayer funds on a debit card so parents could spend them on a host of education expenses ranging from tutoring to computers to special education therapy and services to private school tuition. Or the parent could save the money so the student could utilize it for future college expenses.
The Georgia Senate is expected to reconsider the ESA plan after a slim 28-25 defeat earlier this month. That’s because proponents know this bill would help groups of pupils who need additional choices other than their traditional public schools.
The ESA plan, supported by Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, would offer ESAs to Georgia parents of military families, students who have been bullied, special needs pupils, children who have been in foster care, and families who earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level.
Students in each of those categories often struggle in public schools, and their parents would like an option other than the school assigned to them by their address.
Research shows it would pay off. For example:
A report released this winter by the Urban Institute showed that students who participated in taxpayer-funded school choice programs in Florida were more likely to attend and succeed in college compared to their peers of the same academic and demographic backgrounds who remained in public schools. In addition, the gains these students made in college increased for every year they were enrolled in private school.
The federal government’s own study of the scholarship program for students in the District of Columbia found those lottery recipients were 12 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than students who applied but didn’t win a scholarship to a private school. The DC school choice program has a lottery because of a cap on the number of federally-funded scholarships.
A 2016 report entitled “Win Win” conducted by EdChoice, reviewed 18 empirical studies of school choice programs. Some 14 studies of school choice programs found they improved student outcomes. Thirty-three empirical studies examined the impact of school choice programs on public schools, and 31 found they improved those schools with one study finding no visible effect.
The proposed Georgia ESA would offer up to 8,400 Georgia pupils an ESA during its first year of operation. Contrast that with the more than 1.6 million public education students in our state, and it’s a tiny offering of school choice to the growing demand of parents and students seeking options when their local school is not a good fit.
And parents can decide how to use that money to tailor their child’s education to meet their needs. For those who do want to utilize the money for private school, it does make it more affordable as there are many small schools that have tuition under $6,000 a year — and at an even more economical price outside metro Atlanta.
Georgia has had two other small school choice programs for over a decade and they have not been the end of public education. The educational establishment bitterly fought the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship and the Georgia Tax Credit Scholarship, yet neither has done anything to harm public schools.
We should not stand in the way of giving children who do not do well in a traditional public school another path forward with an ESA. School choice plans like this are about doing what’s best for students and their future.
Scafidi is a professor of economics and the director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University. He served as education adviser to former Gov. Sonny Perdue and on the staff of former Gov. Roy Barnes’ Education Reform Commission.