The focus should be on what children need

The state of Georgia is constitutionally obligated to provide a free public education. It does this by allocating money to local public schools, primarily according to their student enrollment.

But the state does not pay public schools for children they haven’t enrolled. That would be ridiculous, right?

What I mean is the state doesn’t send tax dollars to a county school district for children in the county who are homeschooled, or who attend a local private school. It doesn’t educate them, so it doesn’t get paid for them.

For that matter, the state also does not keep paying a district year after year for not educating children who used to live there but moved away. Obviously.

But wait, Captain Obvious has more.

While the state allocates funding for every student enrolled in public schools, it does not allocate all of its funding to public schools. For example, this year legislators will dedicate about $10.7 billion of state funds to K-12 education, and almost $22 billion to other uses.

The $10.7 billion going to K-12 education includes all the funds owed to public schools based on their enrollment. But the schools surely have no claim on the other $22 billion – which goes to roads, healthcare, prisons and everything else lawmakers decide to pay for. Agreed?

Good. So, why do some people act like neither of those things is true whenever there’s a proposal to give families more education options?

Consider Senate Bill 233, which would grant $6,000 scholarships to students who leave the public school system. They could use the money to pay for private school tuition, curricula, tutoring or other education expenses.

Despite what bill opponents claim, that money is not taken away from public schools. We just established that a few paragraphs ago.

School districts get state funding for every enrolled student; no more, no less. SB 233 would change absolutely nothing about that. It simply provides financial assistance for some students who choose to leave.

Thousands of families already make this choice, for various reasons. And as we’ve already established, no serious person argues the state should pay public schools for not educating those children.

Everyone acknowledges instead that school districts can and should adjust their budgets accordingly. It certainly helps that they get to keep their locally raised funds and most of their federal funds – making public schools the only service provider that keeps getting paid even partially when their “customers” leave.

To oppose a measure like SB 233 because of funding is like arguing for school districts to receive state money for all of the local children who aren’t enrolled in their schools. 

And when we think about all state spending, we need to understand that any money spent because of the passage of SB 233 would come not from the $10.7 billion spent on K-12 education, but from the $22 billion spent on other things.

Why? Because every single child enrolled in public schools would still be funded. That’s the $10.7 billion. The amount rises or falls every year based on enrollment, but any child not enrolled, as we’ve seen, isn’t funded. 

The fact that some of the $22 billion would go toward their education, as opposed to their healthcare, is irrelevant. After all, the $22 billion already includes other money for education: about $3.2 billion for universities, half a billion for technical colleges and another half a billion for pre-K students.

No one argues funding for universities “takes away from” our K-12 public schools. Why should it be different for other students who, like college students, are not enrolled in K-12 public schools?

Perhaps unwittingly, opponents of SB 233 essentially argue schools should be funded for children they don’t teach, taking as much of the state’s tax dollars as they wish.

No one is trying to take from public schools anything they are owed. But the focus should be not on what schools don’t have, but on what children need.

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