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Georgia should propose school vouchers
Ben Scafidi
Ben Scafidi

Humans seem to always want more — more time with our families, more funding for roads, more tax cuts. More funding for our public K-12 schools. And more student achievement.

When it comes to getting more of something, however, we either (a) have to accept less of something else or (b) increase the productivity of what we’re doing.

Gov. Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly have been blessed with extra tax revenues over the past two legislative sessions thanks to their smart economic stewardship and the ingenuity of everyday Georgians. And, in the spirit of more, they chose to devote over a billion dollars of those extra revenues to additional funding for our K-12 public schools.

With the 2016 legislative session approaching, the Governor’s Education Reform Commission has made some fine recommendations, especially regarding charter school policy.

The most far-reaching recommendation calls for a new state funding formula, one better geared to promoting student achievement. It would no longer require public schools to spend funds on items that do not appear to boost student learning.

In addition, the new formula would provide about $250 million a year more for schools. That’s on top of the recent billion-dollar increase.

Since the existing funding formula was created in the mid-1980s, there has been a massive staffing surge in schools. In fact, employment in Georgia public schools has risen almost twice as fast as increases in student enrollments.

Unfortunately, during the surge in public education, there is no evidence that student achievement increased.

For example, during the 1992-2013 staffing surge in American public schools, reading scores fell for 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress Long Term Trend Assessment, while national math scores were flat.

Public schools have received more money for decades. Public school leaders and employees have wanted that, and voters were persuaded. The implication was that student outcomes would improve.

So, how can student achievement improve? In 2016, Georgia has a golden opportunity to help students achieve more.

With the governor and General Assembly apparently primed, yet again, to give public schools more funding, the state should also offer families more educational freedom. Even better, greater educational freedom can be achieved in a manner that saves taxpayers money.

Georgia should offer all public school students the option of an Education Savings Account. As part of the new funding formula, the state would dedicate 95 percent of funds to debit cards that parents can use to purchase a variety of educational products and services. ESAs allow parents to select the best schools for meeting their children’s unique education needs while saving the state 5 percent. They also allow parents to secure wraparound educational services outside traditional school settings.

Examples of educational services that could be accessed with ESAs include:

• Tuition and fees at a qualified school, online learning program, or for dual enrollment (in school and college, for example)
• Textbooks
• Educational therapies or services from a licensed or accredited practitioner or provider
• Tutoring or teaching services from an individual or facility accredited by a state, regional or national accrediting organization
• Curriculum and related materials
• Fees for a nationally standardized norm-referenced test, an Advanced Placement test or any tests for college or university admission
• Contributions to a college savings account

The state would maintain a list of approved private schools and services. The debit card would only work when purchasing approved services; an auditing process would help prevent fraud.

ESAs offer parents more — more flexibility, more control and more opportunity to ensure that every education dollar is targeted at their child’s individual needs. Funds not spent in a given year can be “carried over” to be used in later years or saved for post-high school education.

The benefits of ESAs and expanding Georgia’s popular tax credit scholarship program are savings to taxpayers while parents are offered access to schools and services they deem better for their children. More than 20 research studies have shown that school choice programs improve outcomes for students who remain in public schools. To date, not one study has shown school choice harms students in public or private schools.

Scafidi is a senior fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University.

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