School Choice Week 2013: Much to Celebrate, More to Do

By Ben Scafidi

National School Choice Week begins January 25, and thousands of parents, students and school choice advocates will hold rallies, show movies and documentaries and visit their state Capitols to promote effective education options for every child. In Georgia, the votes are in: This state wants greater school choice, and political partisanship will not get in the way.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment in November to allow charter schools to once again be a viable option for Georgia families.  Despite a massive misinformation campaign, in which taxpayer funds were (wrongly) used, almost 59 percent of Georgia voters in this high turnout election supported something different than their local school boards and central office bureaucracy. 

Georgians of all walks of life, backgrounds and political parties supported parental choice in k-12 education. And during this National School Choice Week, many of those Georgians will join the hundreds of groups across the nation at more than 3,000 events highlighting options in education, from high-performing public schools to public charter schools, private schools, magnet schools, digital/online learning, blended and hybrid learning and homeschooling.

A wise Georgia Statehouse leader once said, “Some legislators cannot read and some legislators cannot write, but we can all count.”  Legislators certainly can count the 2,178,183 Georgia voters who said “yes” to parental choice in education in November.  No elected official in Georgia has come within 300,000 votes of this total. In other words, parental choice in education is more popular than any statewide elected official in Georgia today.

There are other signs: Today, the largest k-12 school in Georgia is a virtual school, Georgia Cyber Academy. New career academies are opening each year. 

The tax credit scholarship program is also thriving. This program allows taxpayers to receive a state income tax credit for contributions to non-profit student scholarship organizations (SSOs) that provide scholarships for public school students to attend private schools.  Donations to SSOs have increased steadily from $6.2 million in 2008 to a state-imposed maximum of $51.5 million in 2012. That cap was reached in August.  This year, it’s expected to be reached in June. If this Legislature does not raise the cap and allow Georgians to give more, thousands of Georgia taxpayers and companies will be denied the opportunity to help students attend the schools their parents deem best.

What about traditional public schools?  Unfortunately, despite the best intentions and efforts of thousands of committed educators, many of Georgia’s urban and rural public schools are failing to educate their students. Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars and decades of increasing employment in public schools have not improved the situation.  Many public schools will never improve unless parents can directly hold them accountable via school choice.

The intellectual and political debates have been decided and school choice has won.  Now, it is up to education reformers to “consolidate their gains.” They must operate independent public charter schools, career academies, virtual and hybrid schools and student scholarship organizations in a transparent manner that, through the expansion of educational choices, ensures accountability to parents.

In the wake of the passage of the constitutional amendment that enables an independent state commission to approve the establishment of public charter schools, Georgia must take two specific actions:

  • Without adopting any amendments that dilute or regulate Georgia’s renowned tuition tax credit program, the Legislature needs to increase the cap on the tax credit scholarship program and adopt an automatic escalator for future increases.
  • High quality charter schools, virtual schools, hybrid schools and career academies should be allowed to thrive.

Taxpayers and parents should decide how large these educational options should become. In choosing how best to educate their children, parents consider more than just how well their child performs on a state-mandated standardized test. They should be free to weigh all factors and choose accordingly.

Finally, in advancing economic development in Georgia, business leaders and state officials should celebrate and promote the diversity of choices and competition that exists in Georgia k-12 education. Few states, especially in the South, can lay claim to a k-12 educational menu that includes so many options. More and more, business leaders understand that, when parents are able to make informed decisions from a variety of options regarding the education of their children, education goes from a gamble to a winning hand.

Benjamin Scafidi is a professor of economics at Georgia College & State University and a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes practical, 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 Georgia College & State University 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 (January 25, 2013). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.