The Education Change Georgia Needs

School choice opponents make lots of demonstrably false claims. Some of the flimsiest concern the accessibility of private schools.

To hear opponents tell it, private schools are too expensive, too rare outside of urban areas, and downright racist in their admissions standards.

Wrong, wrong and wrong – especially as it relates to the current conversation around Promise Scholarship accounts.

First, let’s remember private school tuition is not the only allowable use of the proposed Promise Scholarships. Families could also purchase a homeschooling curriculum, certain therapies, transportation to school and more.

(An aside: That’s why it’s false to conflate Promise Scholarships with  “vouchers,” which are merely coupons redeemable for tuition. Opponents use the V-word not because it’s accurate, but because of its negative connotation.)

But many claims by opponents of the scholarships relate to private school, so I’m evaluating them anyway. To do so, I used data from the website Private School Review. Here’s what I found.

Claim: Private schools are too expensive for low-income families, even with school-choice programs.

Yes, Atlanta’s elite private schools can set you back $20,000 or more per year in tuition. But they’re the exception, not the rule, among private schools – just like most hotels provide a perfectly good service without charging as much as the Ritz-Carlton. According to Private School Review, the average tuition for a private school in Georgia is $11,040.

Even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Among schools that report their tuition, the website shows the median cost is $9,000. That means more than 100 private schools in Georgia charge that amount or less. That includes 60 that charge no more than $6,000 – the amount families would receive in a Promise Scholarship Account.

Claim: Private schools are “an Atlanta thing.” There’s no school choice in rural parts of the state.

Even if we change the claim to include urban areas besides Atlanta, it’s still wrong. Private School Review lists schools in 97 of Georgia’s 159 counties. The smallest is Warren County, population 5,215.

The definition of rural varies, but the Department of Community Affairs listed 113 such counties last year. Almost half of them, 53, have at least one private school, and those counties had a total of 88 private schools.

Yes, that means the vast majority of private schools are in non-rural counties. But then, the vast majority of Georgians live in non-rural counties. Education options exist in rural counties nonetheless.
By the way, 40 counties have a private school that charges no more than $6,000. So the most accessible options are also fairly well distributed.

Claim: Private schools are a tool of latter day segregationists.

It is regrettably true that, decades ago, some private schools were created in response to integration. But as with many other aspects of life, much has changed.

Private School Review reports 29% of students at its listed Georgia schools are non-white. That’s not far off the 40% of Georgia residents who are non-white, but it’s well below the 63% of public-school students who are racial minorities.

Still, some nuance is needed. Many private schools have a student makeup similar to that of public schools. And given that non-white Georgians tend to have lower incomes, there’s a certain cause-and-effect at play. Programs such as Promise Scholarships can help a wider range of students afford a different choice. Anyone concerned that non-white students are underrepresented in Georgia’s private schools should support more choices, not oppose them.

That last point is key. Although we have a wider array of education choices than some people realize, they remain limited for many. That’s largely because it’s difficult to compete with a “free” – that is, taxpayer-funded – alternative. And coming up with the money to pay for a different option poses a real challenge for many families. If more of them had the means to make a different choice, we should expect educational entrepreneurs to create new choices.

Ultimately, that’s the kind of change Georgia needs.

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