School Choice Expands In Georgia, But More Is Needed

Georgia is for the most part, a reliable “red” state. Governor Nathan Deal was easily re-elected in November 2014 and David Perdue easily defeated Michelle Nunn, daughter of long time Democratic Senator Sam Nunn. That said, within the state, the largest county, Fulton, that contains the city of Atlanta is a Democratic stronghold and still holds considerable power. Recently, the Cato Institute reported on progress made in Fulton County about school choice:

Superintendent Robert Avossa is leaving the 96,000-student district for the larger Palm Beach County system in Florida. Ken Zeff, who takes over as interim superintendent next week, shares Avossa’s view that parents want and deserve choices. An array of choices may lessen the exodus of by parents who want a non-traditional setting for their children. More than 15 percent of Fulton families opted for private schools this school year. While Fulton has increased its number of district-approved charter schools, the AJC reports more than 1,600 families are on charter school wait lists for next fall, largely in south Fulton where school performance is not as high as north Fulton. (North Fulton is one of the state’s most affluent areas and boasts some of the highest achieving high schools in Georgia. Its schools are a major draw for new families moving to the metro region.) Not every student learns in the same way so Fulton is expanding school design options. “This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools,” said Zeff in an AJC news story by Fulton Schools reporter Rose French. “Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”

While this was good news, there was another attempt to open up options to more students that wasn’t as successful. HB 243, a bill sponsored by State Representative Mark Hamilton that would have allowed a small number students to have access to education savings accounts via state education funds to use for different educational purposes including paying for private school tuition or to use for homeschool curriculum. Naturally, opponents of school choice came out strongly against the bill, using the typical gaggle of arguments. From the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s liberal Jay Bookman:

“We have schools in this state that haven’t been able to keep their doors open for 180 days a year; we have schools in which band and music programs have had to be slashed to the bone or even eliminated. And we’re going to divert state taxpayer money to finance private piano and violin lessons for private-school students whose parents would be paying for such things anyway?”

This is fear mongering nonsense. The real concern from opponents is a large number of students fleeing the public schools (largely the ones that perform poorly and whose students would benefit most from options) and going with alternative forms of education including home schooling. The program would cap the number of eligible students:

To allay concerns of a “huge exodus” from public schools, HB 243 would cap usage to 0.5 percent of the total student population (about 8,500 kids) in the first year and 1 percent (about 17,000 kids) thereafter. Experience in other states with ESAs, Arizona and Florida, suggests the number will likely be closer to 1,000, Hamilton says.

The other issue is the money. There shouldn’t be any concerns over that as well:

In any event, because the accounts would be limited to kids enrolled in public school or entering kindergarten or the first grade, Hamilton says the effect on the state budget should be neutral, and the effect on local school budgets ought to be positive. “We’re only taking the state portion,” he says. “So (districts) still get their local property-tax portion that they receive, even though that student’s not there, and then they also continue to receive federal dollars.”

Despite all of this, the bill was stalled and the legislative session ended. It will have to be taken up on the next legislative session. The support for more school choice is out there. What Atlanta has done is a good but more can and should be done.