National School Choice Week was January 24-30, and there’s an air of optimism among advocates of education options for children, across the nation and here in Georgia. Now is the time to promote school choice: Many families are learning – the hard way, unfortunately – that being at the mercy of education bureaucrats is much like being a puppet on a string.
Schools open. Schools close. Schools offer hybrid learning options and remote options and change schedules at whim. Teachers and staff are paid, no matter what, but the upheaval affects learning, socializing, academic achievement, stability and, of course, the schedules of working parents. Families are frustrated at the public school system and desperately seeking consistency for their children and themselves.
While many teachers and districts defend the approach because of the pandemic, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reports that, across the nation and internationally, opening schools is not exacerbating the transmission of Covid-19.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation launched a new investigative journalism initiative January 28 with an article, “Where Have All the Children Gone?” It notes that, as of October, enrollment in Georgia public schools was about 36,000 fewer than last year. While data on just where those 36,000 went were not readily available from the Georgia Department of Education, journalists Chris Butler and Cindy Morley found:
• Public charter school enrollment was higher.
• Georgia’s largest online public charter school saw a 28% enrollment increase.
• A survey of private schools found that most were experiencing higher enrollment despite the economic downturn related to Covid-19
• Homeschooling appears to be on the increase.
A large number of the children who were not enrolled in public schools came from the lower grades. That’s a promising development: It suggests parents are willing to test the waters of education options for their children, which bodes well for their comfort level with school choice as students age.
Now that parents are actively seeking alternatives, it’s time to expand access to options for their children. Georgia legislators have already approved two programs:
• Special-needs students have the option of a state-funded scholarship to a private school that meets their needs. That program – begun in 2007 – saw a 9% increase in the 2019-20 school year, the latest data available. More than 5,200 students were enrolled.
• The tuition tax credit scholarship program implemented in 2008 offers tax credits for donations to student scholarship organizations, which provide eligible students with scholarships to attend private schools.
But Georgia has an opportunity to take choice further with education savings accounts. Also known as education scholarship accounts (ESAs), they allow families to use state education funding for a range of authorized alternatives to public schools, including private school tuition, homeschooling materials and tutoring services.
In a new study the Foundation released January 27, researcher Corey DeAngelis estimates the economic impacts if just 5% of students took advantage of ESAs in Georgia: $1.7 billion in economic benefits from higher lifetime earnings associated with increases in academic achievement; $1 billion in economic benefits from more graduates; and $13 million from reductions in the social costs associated with crimes.
But money is rarely the primary motivator for Georgia families. Parents understand their children differ and learn differently, and they want the best for them. As DeAngelis puts it, “Funding students, as opposed to systems, would benefit families by empowering them to choose the education provider that best meets their needs – public or private, in-person or remote.”
Caps on funding limit who can benefit from Georgia’s existing choice programs. An ESA typically costs taxpayers less than a public school education does. There are 36,000 reasons and counting for the money to follow the child in Georgia, and there’s no time better than now. If ESAs can increase the number of graduates, improve their long-term opportunities and offer families security and stability in their children’s education, then it’s a choice they should be able to consider.
[Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Established in 1991, the Foundation is a trusted, independent resource for voters and elected officials. The Foundation provides actionable solutions to real-life problems by bringing people together. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 29, 2021).]