Education Reform Hobbles Through the Legislative Session

By Benita M. Dodd

Crossover Day, day 28 of Georgia’s legislative session, is the deadline by which legislation must pass out of one chamber into the next in order to have a chance at becoming law.

The Georgia House ended its Crossover Day past the midnight hour Thursday. Among the casualties was legislation to establish education savings accounts. This mechanism would have allowed parents to spend their child’s state public education dollars on a menu of pre-approved education services, including private school and tutoring expenses.

Not even an amendment to restrict the program to one quarter of 1 percent of the Georgia’s public school enrollment – fewer than 4,500 students – would sway opponents. The Department of Audits and Accounts estimated that the legislation would cost “as much as $17 million a year,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

“That is a lot of money taken away from public schools,” said one legislator.

The final vote out of the House was 60 supporting and 102 opposing the bill.

A law signed by Governor Nathan Deal last year approved $100,000 grants to public charter schools for facilities funding. The schools are still waiting for the money to be allocated in the budget.

Across the state, charter schools are expected to do far more with much less funding than traditional public schools. It’s bemusing that some of the most innovative and accountable efforts to improve public education and academic performance for Georgia’s children would be handicapped financially. And it’s astonishing to hear legislators resist equitable funding, as if students in public charter schools are less equal than in traditional charter schools.

The situation is even more dismal for state-authorized charter schools, which receive no local funds. These are funded by the state at the average of the state’s five lowest-funded public school districts. With that, they are expected to outperform traditional public schools or lose their charter.

At Georgia Cyber Academy, Georgia’s largest public school with more than 14,000 students, per-student funding in 2016 was $5,458. The taxpayer expenditure per traditional public student, by contrast, was $11,213.

The House voted 111-54 to increase state funding for state charter schools to the average of all public school districts; that legislation awaits Senate action. It’s expected to cost $10 million.

The House approved expanded opportunities for children in Georgia to take advantage of special-needs scholarships.

Finally, the debate over how much to expand the funds available in the state’s tuition tax credit scholarships program continues. House legislation is in conference committee; the Senate voted to set it at $65 million; the House had voted to increase the amount to $100 million over six years. Contributions to the program have reached the existing cap of $58 million on the first business day of the past four years; in 2017, contributions had to be pro-rated at less than half of donors’ contributions.

To understand how disingenuous it is to complain about the cost of education choice bills considered this session, it’s worth placing them in context of the Georgia education budget:

First, as Foundation Senior Fellow Dr. Ben Scafidi reported last year in his eye-opening study, “Balancing the Books in Georgia Public Education,” the Georgia Department of Education website reported spending figures of $15.665 billion in fiscal year 2016. The state, however, reported a total amount of $19.158 billion in public education spending to other government agencies.

Now consider either huge pile of money against the drop in the bucket being debated for tuition tax credit scholarships, whether $65 million or $100 million.

Finally, consider that even a $17 million education savings account program could not gain legislative approval.

Behind every child struggling in a school that fails to meet his or her needs are parents justifiably frustrated and policymakers paying lip service to local control. The ultimate local control is the parent; the best education funding is when the money follows the child. If more legislators were mindful of this maxim, more struggling students could choose to cross over to success.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 2, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.