A Reality Check on the School Choice Bogeymen

March 6th, 2015 by Leave a Comment

By Benjamin Scafidi

BENJAMIN SCAFIDI
BENJAMIN SCAFIDI

Two bills in the Georgia Legislature would allow thousands of Georgia parents the opportunity to choose better educational options for their children. One, (HB 35) would significantly increase the cap of $58 million on contributions to Georgia’s tax credit scholarship program. This program allows taxpayers to donate a portion of their state income tax liability to Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) that give scholarships to children to attend private schools.

With the popularity of the program (based on two recent opinion polls), it’s no surprise the $58 million cap on donations for 2015 was met on Day 1, January 1. For reference, that $58 million is about three-tenths of 1 percent of what taxpayers spend on public schools. The average scholarship is less than 35 percent of what is spent per student in public schools.

Another, HB 243, would create an education savings account (ESA) program that would give families an education debit card with a certain amount of taxpayer funding. The funds could be spent on private school tuition, tutoring or other educational services that children – especially disadvantaged children – may need. Families who were cost-conscious could save unspent funds for college tuition.

Parents should have the opportunity to choose the best educational settings for their child using the taxpayer funds earmarked for their child’s education. Parents should be able to choose among traditional public schools, charter public schools, private schools and online options.

Many raise bogeymen in arguments against parental choice. And, just like the bogeymen in your closet when you were 6 years old, when you open the door nothing is there.

First, some argue that private schools are more segregated than public schools. The sad fact is that many minority families cannot afford tuition payments in addition to the taxes they must pay. The state’s scholarship programs help level the playing field and enable more minority parents to choose private school.

Second, some allege that students perform about the same in private schools as in public schools. Yet research reviewed by the Friedman Foundation consistently shows gains in both educational attainment and non-academic outcomes for students who exercise choice and modest test score gains for students who remain in public schools.

For example, Washington, D.C., students who were offered scholarships to private schools experienced a 21 percentage-point advantage in high school graduation rates relative to students not offered scholarships.

A large body of research finds that when offered scholarships, low-income and minority parents choose private schools for many reasons, including improved safety, a values-based setting, and so their children will attend and succeed in college.

Third, some claim that Georgia’s popular tax credit scholarship program has not provided as many scholarships to poor students as the law intended. The facts reveal the bogeyman there, too: Actually, 76.6 percent of scholarships went to families earning less than $62,202 per year. Georgia GOAL, the largest scholarship organization, reports that over 90 percent of scholarship dollars have gone to students in families with incomes less than $60,000.

Fourth, some argue that such moves “take money away from public schools.” In fact, research shows that if you give a child less than $6,700 as a tax credit scholarship or an Education Savings Account, the finances improve in that child’s school district. (Find out more on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Web site here.)

Finally, some raise the specter that school choice programs are unconstitutional. In 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that voucher programs were constitutional as long as the scholarship funds flowed to parents who then made the decision where those funds would be spent.

Unfortunately, there are those who cry bogeyman every time we give parents educational choices in K-12 education – choices they already have in Georgia’s Pre-kindergarten program and with HOPE Scholarships and Pell Grants in college. Fortunately, the bogeyman has been dismissed by large majorities of Georgia parents and voters, and the facts are on their side. 

Benjamin Scafidi is the director of the Education Economics Center in the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University and a senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and the Friedman Foundation.

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