National School Choice Week takes place the week of January 26 and, according to the National School Choice Alliance, a record-breaking 1,950 events and activities will mark the annual celebration in Georgia.
It’s exciting that “school choice” has become a part of the education lexicon, just two short decades after the Georgia General Assembly approved legislation to create start-up public charter schools. But the hard-fought campaign to give Georgia families greater choice in how their children are educated is far from over. Well-funded special interests continue to muddy the waters with misinformation in an ongoing effort to discourage legislators from shrinking the taxpayer-funded government monopoly on educating the citizenry.
Among the misinformation:
- Public schools would lose the cream of the crop if choice is allowed. (If families are happy, why would they leave?)
- If public schools in Georgia are doing poorly, and if student achievement is lagging, it’s because there isn’t enough money dedicated to public education. (More education spending has not led to better outcomes.)
- Education choice advocates are beholden to greedy, unaccountable, for-profit management companies (The overwhelming majority of charter schools are managed by nonprofit organizations.)
- Charter schools are taking money away from public schools. (First, charter schools are public schools. Second, in Georgia, they receive less in funding than traditional public schools.)
But the most egregious of the myths is that it’s a mistake to put choice in the hands of poor people; that low-income parents are not smart enough to make decisions about their children’s education. “Miss Virginia” is a movie about the impoverished single mother who leads a successful movement to implement a scholarship program that allows public-school students to attend private schools in Washington, D.C. It reinforces the sheer determination and desperation of many low-income parents who want to give their children the best possible education.
Despite sophisticated opposition campaigns, education choice has come far in Georgia since 1998, when that first start-up charter school in Savannah was approved. Online charter schools, hybrid schools, charter systems, special-needs scholarships and tax-credit scholarships have been introduced in Georgia.
The next step should be Educational Scholarship Accounts. Also known as education savings accounts, or ESAs, they would give Georgia parents greater choices in and control of their child’s education. Not to be confused with voucher programs – which are best likened to a coupon, to be used at a specific private school – an ESA is are account from which parents are able to draw the funds that would have been spent on their child’s public education and pay for a personalized education.
They can purchase from a menu of approved services for their child’s education, whether books, a tutor, home schooling, private schooling or other educational expenses. Unlike the entire amount in a voucher (a maximum of $8,600 in Milwaukee’s program, for example, for high school students) going to a private school, parents would be able to use an ESA to shop and customize the services they need for their child.
Legislation introduced in last year’s legislative session went nowhere. Georgia parents who want this option should be given the chance to use it. Most parents are happy with their neighborhood public school, but government should not stand in the way of those who want better – or different – for their child. And families who are unable to afford to move to a better school district or afford a private school that meets their child’s needs deserve options.
Families seek school choice for many reasons, not always involving academic performance or a failing school. “The money should follow the child,” is not just a cliché; it’s crucial. No family should be hindered from seeking the best possible outcome for their children’s future. Every family should be able to celebrate their options in education on a daily basis, not just one week a year.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.