Chalking Up Successes in Georgia School Choice

On the home front overall, the news about education options is encouraging. Georgia’s public charter schools’ enrollment increased during the COVID-19 pandemic even as enrollment in traditional public schools declined.

This week, public charter schools won back their opportunity to be heard before the State Board of Education on matters that affect them: The board re-established its Board Charter Committee. The committee, dissolved in 2019, will meet again in March.

As the dissolution of the committee demonstrated, public charter schools are not always assured of a warm reception. This despite being, in fact, public schools that have earned greater independence through a contract – a charter – that allows them greater autonomy and flexibility in return for greater accountability than a traditional public school.

Given the hostility in some districts, the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia, established in 2012, provides a review process that gives many charter applicants a sorely needed second chance. Today, 33 state-authorized public charter schools exist, educating 35,000 students.

More hope for education options comes from the Georgia House Education Committee’s new Academic Innovation Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Todd Jones, who – with four children – has a vested interest in K-12 education. The committee is likely to play a strong supporting role for innovation as families’ enthusiasm grows for choice amid the vagaries of public education during COVID-19.

Then there’s the opportunity in Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), also known as education savings accounts. Legislation introduced in the House would phase in ESAs for up to 5% of the state’s public school enrollment. Essentially, the ESA would give families the statewide average per-student amount in state education funds (along with supplemental funds, in the case of special-needs students). This will fund an authorized menu of expenses that can include private school, online learning, private tutoring, educational materials and other education-related expenses.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has published several studies highlighting the benefits of ESAs:

  • Seven years ago, Dr. Eric Wearne’s study, “Opportunity for All: Education Savings Accounts in Georgia,” found Georgia taxpayers could save nearly $20 million annually by offering ESAs.
  • In 2015, Dr. Ben Scafidi’s study, “Education Savings Accounts: Getting ‘More’ for Georgia Students,” noted: “ESAs allow parents to select the best schools for meeting their children’s unique education needs – while saving the state 5%. They also allow parents to secure wrap-around educational services outside traditional school settings.”
  • In 2017, the Foundation testified on the advantages of ESAs, noting: “ESAs will also save local school districts money, as they get to keep a small amount of state funding that is not FTE-driven. They get to keep all local funding. They also get to keep most federal funding through complicated hold-harmless provisions when they lose students via ESAs or they lose students for any reason.”
  • Last month, the Foundation published “Funding Students Instead of Institutions,” by Corey DeAngelis, demonstrating millions of dollars in academic and economic benefits to Georgia of an ESA program.

It is crucial to embrace these education options at the state level. The Biden administration is no friend of choice, not even charter schools. “Biden himself was critical of charter schools, and he pledged not to provide federal funding for ‘for-profit’ charter schools,” Education Week reports.

His nominee for Deputy Secretary of Education, Cindy Marten, “has provided testimony promoting extreme anti-charter school restrictions: calling for school districts to be the sole authorizer of charter schools, advocating for districts to set aside student academic needs and deny charter schools citing fiscal impact, and eliminating appeals processes,” the Freedom Coalition for Charter Schools pointed out in a letter opposing her nomination.

The Foundation has a lengthy history of championing choice in all its forms. As for charter schools, “multiple studies, including a recent analysis from Fordham, have found that charter expansion improves student outcomes at nearby district schools – or, at worst, does no harm,” the Fordham Institute reports.

As for criticism about public charter schools taking money away from public districts, “host districts’ instructional spending per pupil remained neutral to positive in all twenty-one states [examined], even in the face of charter expansion,” Fordham adds.

At the very least, evidence indicates education options save money and have no negative impact. Now, more than ever, choice preserves the sovereignty of Georgia over its education agenda by reducing federal intervention. Ultimately, however, choice give Georgia families the ability to decide what is best for their child. And deep down, that’s what Georgians want.

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