The Misleading Rhetoric Against ESAs

The pandemic has forced a lot of Georgia families to rethink the education of their children. Public-school enrollment this fall was about 36,000 lower than the year before, and that’s after the gains among public charter schools that offset some of the losses. Private schools and homeschooling have also become more appealing.

It’s no wonder, then, that interest in expanding education options is likewise higher. Nor is it surprising that opponents are rounding up the usual excuses to try to prevent more families from gaining options.

Around this time each year, we hear opponents talk about the “cost” of programs such as Georgia’s tax credit scholarships and Special Needs Scholarship, or proposals to create education scholarship accounts (ESAs). The way they do so is incomplete to the point of being misleading.

First, there’s the way they define “cost.” Invariably, they focus solely on the change in revenue for public school systems – while ignoring the expenses these systems incur in educating children. A budget is more than just one side of the ledger.
While systems have fixed costs such as school buildings, research indicates more expenses are variable. That makes sense, considering school systems expect additional state funding for each additional student they enroll. After all, you’ll never hear a school official tell state budget writers, “Don’t worry about increasing our funding; most of our costs are fixed, so we’re all good!”

The “cost” of these education options needs to reflect the savings that school systems experience when a student chooses to leave. Because only the state portion of funding is at issue, and the system keeps all of its locally raised tax dollars, this should be very manageable. It’s no different from when a student’s family moves to another public school system.

The second mistake opponents make is related. They make the – very convenient – assumption that children who choose a different option wouldn’t have enrolled in public schools anyway. Therefore, they claim, there aren’t really any offsetting expense reductions.
This assumption is not only convenient – for them – but erroneous.

Research into these programs in Georgia and elsewhere around the country suggest between 84% and 90% of enrollees are “switchers.” That is, they switched from a public school to a different option. The rate is still higher when a program requires prior public school attendance, as the latest ESA proposal in Georgia does in most cases.

So, the vast majority of children who choose one of these programs do represent a cost savings for school systems. Even with a few non-switchers, the programs very likely save taxpayers money overall.

But there’s a final kind of cost, an actual cost, that opponents ignore. Maybe that’s because they’re the ones imposing it.

There is probably no greater cost to taxpayers, and society at large, than a bad educational fit for a child. All children are different, and one size does not fit all. Even excellent schools are not the best fit for every single child. By limiting families’ options, we are forcing some children to attend a school that just isn’t right for them.

What’s more, we know providing options isn’t better only in some theoretical sense. Once again, research shows that school-choice programs tend to boost academic achievement not only for participants, but for the students who remain in the public schools they leave.

In fact, my organization just this past week released a study quantifying the benefits of higher achievement. Author Corey DeAngelis of the Reason Foundation found that enrolling just 5% of Georgia students in an ESA could boost the state’s high school graduation rate by 4 percentage points. That in turn would generate $1.7 billion in economic benefits from these additional grads’ higher lifetime earnings. It would also likely reduce the number of crimes committed in Georgia by about 350, reducing the social cost of crime by some $13 million.

The real cost associated with these programs, then, is the opportunity cost of not having them.

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