By Jim Kelly
In a recent speech at the National Press Club, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, (D-NY) explained that improving economic opportunities for middle-class Americans is the key issue on which Democrats and Republicans should be focusing leading up to 2016 Presidential election and beyond.
If this is the case, the Georgia Legislature can advance an important piece of the middle class agenda: Increase the annual cap on income tax credits available for contributions to scholarship programs that fund private school options for K-12 students from low- and middle-income families.
Schumer’s speech was a watershed moment. He acknowledged that the Democrat Party has failed to address the ways in which technology and globalization have buffeted the economic fortunes and futures of middle-class Americans. But his proposed cure will only exacerbate the problem.
In his words, “Ultimately, the public knows in its gut that a strong and active government is the only way to reverse the middle class decline and help revive the American dream.”
Well, that is certainly one way to go.
While acknowledging that, “when people are educated, they do better,” New York’s elder statesman (who enjoys a 100 percent rating from the National Education Association) no doubt sees increased government spending on public schools as an essential part of rebuilding the middle class. Unfortunately, this could lead to entrapment instead of empowerment.
There is a more liberating way. Since 2008, thousands of Georgia taxpayers have contributed to qualified Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) that award K-12 private school scholarships to thousands of middle-income families; families who want to decide for themselves where best to educate their children.
Whether they choose traditional public schools, public charter schools, private independent schools, parochial schools, “blended” or online learning, or homeschooling, middle-income parents should have the freedom to choose the best schools for their children. This is far more logical than perpetuating a “one-size-fits-all” government model designed to educate children in another, bygone, industrial era.
Understandably, the leaders of the national school choice movement have focused on rescuing students from low-income families who are stuck in poor-performing urban public schools. Their urgent needs and their powerful stories of despair make them a natural first target for the relief offered by school choice policies.
By narrowly tailoring educational choice to low-income families, however, these leaders and many elected officials who support their policies neglect middle-class families who share the same goals for the educational well-being, safety, character, and peer networks of their children.
The Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, which is the State’s largest SSO, partners with 125 private schools located in communities throughout Georgia. Since 2008, GOAL has awarded about 15,000 scholarships, distributed proportionately in numbers that generally correspond to the percentage population base in each of the four geographical regions of Georgia.
“Second-tier” cities such as Augusta, Macon, Columbus and Savannah, and “third tier” cities such as Rome, Athens, LaGrange, Albany, Milledgeville, Dublin, Statesboro and Valdosta must compete with metro Atlanta and comparable cities in other states for business and economic development. Across the state, the availability of GOAL Scholarships for the children of middle-class families preserves or attracts the types of skilled line or managerial workers desired by employers.
Without a significant increase in the current $58 million cap, the Georgia GOAL program will be unable to keep up with the demand for scholarships. As a result, many middle-class workers will be unable to afford the tuition associated with educating their children at a better local private school. Most likely, many of these families will relocate to communities in states whose K-12 education reform policies are better at attracting businesses providing meaningful employment opportunities.
By adopting a K-12 tuition tax credit scholarship program for both low- and middle-income families, Georgia’s Legislature is on the cutting edge of addressing the educational and economic needs of middle-class Americans. By increasing the annual cap on education expense credits, our elected officials can institutionalize that economic development advantage for years to come.
Jim Kelly is the Founder of the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program and is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.