Give Georgia’s Students Choices, Not Excuses

By Kyle Wingfield

Kyle Wingfield

In almost a decade of writing about school choice, I’ve heard every excuse imaginable to oppose giving students and families educational options.

I’ve heard critics say school choice is only for “the rich.” Not true – families of means already have options, thanks to their ability to pay private school tuition or move into a neighborhood with good public schools; school choice is about extending that liberty to those without means.

I’ve heard critics say school choice hurts students who remain in public schools. In fact, as a 2016 review of the 33 empirical studies on the topic reported, “31 find that choice improves academic outcomes at public schools. One of the remaining studies finds that choice has no visible impact on public schools, and (only) one finds a negative impact.”
All of the complaints boil down to one notion: There isn’t enough money to support public schools properly and pay for choice programs.

This zero-sum argument is offered without proof, much less with any acknowledgment that this year Georgia is fully funding public schools and planning to raise teachers’ salaries by more than $2,500 and offering $100 million in tax credits for private scholarship donors and supporting dozens of public charter schools and paying for the Special Needs Scholarship.

There’s enough pie for everyone to have a slice, despite the zero-summers’ protests. Now we have evidence they have it exactly backward: School choice can actually lower public school districts’ costs by more than the amount they stand to lose in funding due to choice programs.

That’s the finding of a brand-new study by Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia. Dorfman looked at the marginal cost for districts to educate students: how much more they would spend if one more student enrolled.

Or, as far as school choice is concerned, how much less they would spend if one fewer student enrolled.

Dorfman looked at spending and revenues for Georgia’s 159 county school districts. (Due to difficulty in obtaining the appropriate data, he did not examine the city school districts.) He calculated both their variable costs – which change with the number of students, versus fixed costs – and their average marginal cost.

What he found was telling: “state funding per student was below marginal cost for all county school districts.” In other words, if a child were to leave a public school – taking the state’s contribution to her education with her – her former school district would on average save money, no matter which district it was. That’s because it was going to spend more educating her than it was going to receive in state funding.

It’s not even close in most cases. Of Georgia’s 159 county school districts, Dorfman found 20 would save at least $5,000 on average; all but four would save at least $1,000 on average. Half of the districts would save more than $3,825.

It’s important to note these are averages. At any particular moment, a district might be able to absorb one more student with minimal additional cost – or it might reach a tipping point and be forced to hire an additional teacher. The average accounts for both of these extremes and all possibilities in between.

In any case, the bottom line is clear: School choice programs don’t harm school districts if they are tied to state funding levels.

As it happens, two bills in Georgia this year would create Educational Scholarship Accounts for students: House Bill 301 and Senate Bill 173. Both bills would allow students to use the state portion of their school’s funding for private school tuition, homeschooling materials, tutoring, or even save some for college. All 159 county school districts would, on average, be better off financially if some of their students took ESAs, since they would reduce their costs by more than the reduction in their funding.

Neither bill was passed by a chamber by Crossover Day, but it’s still possible some form of an ESA could be added to a bill that is still alive.

No more excuses. Give Georgia’s students the tools they need to obtain the education that’s best for them.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO 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 views 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 8, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.