By Benita M. Dodd
When National School Choice Week was launched in 2010, there were just 150 events around the nation, one of them the Georgia Policy Public Policy Foundation’s. This year, the Foundation’s Leadership Breakfast on January 21 was one of 11,500 events marking this annual event.
Officially, National School Choice Week takes place January 21-31. The Foundation’s 2014 event barely beat the January 28 ice storm that paralyzed Atlanta and cancelled the annual rally at the State Capitol. There’s no rally this year, either, but not for want of support.
“We’ve had great attendance and enthusiasm from thousands of students, parents and legislators across the state in the past few years,” said Randy Hicks, whose Georgia Center for Opportunity has hosted the rally at the Capitol in past years.
“Unfortunately, winter weather is always our challenge, especially last year’s ice storm. That occurred on the day of our rally, literally forcing a last-minute cancellation and trapping so many families for days.
“So we’re changing strategy: We’re now planning weekly ‘lobby days’ where parents and students can meet with their legislators to encourage them to support more school choice across the state. The bonus is the constant presence of families at the Capitol will ensure an ongoing presence that will last beyond the annual rally.”
A constant presence is just what policy-makers need to remind them students deserve more choices to improve academic achievement. Georgians heard why at the Foundation’s January 21 event, “School Choice: The Next Frontier,” from keynote speaker Dr. Ben Scafidi.
“Almost every country in the world has more choice than the Land of the Free – the United States,” said Scafidi, a Foundation Senior Fellow and director of Kennesaw State University’s new Education Economics Center.
Georgia has reasons to celebrate, reasons to mope and reasons to hope this School Choice Week. Among them:
Hope: The State Charter School Commission gave charter schools, Georgia’s original public school option, a shot at success by assuring an impartial hearing for applications.
Mope: A brick-and-mortar charter public school still gets only 82 percent of the funding given a traditional public school, Scafidi noted.
Celebrate: The tuition tax credit scholarship program has soared in popularity. On Day 1 – January 1 – a whopping $91 million in pledges were made to the program, which enables public school students to attend private schools.
Mope: Unless the cap is lifted, total giving for the scholarships is limited to $58 million. Already, there is no opportunity left to give in the next 364 days and the state is prorating pledged donations.
Celebrate: The program has great accountability and bipartisan support, according to Scafidi. Plus, students’ options expand and taxpayers save. Donations to SSOs per scholarship student statewide amounted to about $4,100 per student and the average scholarship was just over $3,100. Seventy five percent of scholarships went to students whose families with income of $62,000 or less. And students who get scholarships are getting a lot less than students who are going to Georgia public schools.
Mope: Limits on this program include the $58 million cap and a push to make it means-tested and impose testing requirements on private schools. Scafidi points out that while well-intentioned, testing has unintended consequences: The best private schools drop out and the schools that need the money stay in. It’s likely applicants are not doing well in their public schools (or they wouldn’t want to leave). The student’s low scores drop the private school’s scores and, on a Web site, that reduces the schools competitiveness.
Hope: The next step would be to follow Arizona and Florida into greater choice: Education Savings Accounts, which, like Health Savings Accounts, incentivize consumers to be cost-conscious. A frugal parent can shop around for private school tuition; spend on a pre-approved list of education services or use the savings toward college tuition. A bonus, according to Scafidi: The education marketplace has an incentive to develop and compete for services.
Hope: Governor Nathan Deal’s proposal for Opportunity School Districts – a state takeover of failing schools – is sorely needed. The specifics need to be worked out, but it’s alarming that, according to Deal, 20 percent of students are in failing schools. Like charter schools, traditional public schools need consequences for failing students.
Celebrate: The Legislature intends to revisit the education funding formula. Correctly done, it enhances school choice: The funding follows the child to the school the family chooses, and traditional public schools can better compete for students. But watch out for the bureaucrats along the way: As Scafidi pointed out, the current funding formula passed in 1985. From 1987-2012, the state saw a 54 percent increase in students, a 100 percent increase in full-time equivalent employees; a 92 percent increase in teachers, and a 112 percent increase in administrators and other staff.
Celebrating, hoping or moping, the work must continue. School choice should be a daily celebration in Georgia, not just warm fuzzies one chilly week in January.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
As an employer, and a parent and a graduate of Georgia public schools, I am pleased that the Foundation has undertaken this project. (The report card) provides an excellent tool for parents and educators to objectively evaluate our public high schools. It will further serve a useful purpose as a benchmark for the future to measure our schools’ progress.