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Georgians embrace school choice
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For proponents of school choice, there’s heart-warming encouragement in the announcement last week that the state has already reached the 2014 cap in contributions to Georgia’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which funds choices in education for Georgia’s children.

That’s $58 million volunteered by generous and committed taxpayers in the first three weeks of the year, a clear sign that there is room for school choice funding to grow.

Competition is a fine incentive, judging by the pricing and quality options it offers to discerning consumers. So it is with education choice, allowing schools and modes of education to compete to fill students’ varied needs and parents to free their children from low expectations or a cookie-cutter education.

Yes, the money matters, but that simply opens a door. Parents consider more than funding. They choose carefully, valuing transparency and information highly, according to a recent study based on a survey involving parents of Georgia K–12 private school scholarship recipients.

“Contrary to the assertions of some school choice opponents, low-income parents, single parents, African-American parents, and parents with less than a college education are willing and able to be informed and active education consumers on behalf of their children,” the study authors note.

It’s no wonder that the ever-expanding National School Choice Week (Jan. 26-Feb. 1) is so inspirational and worthy of celebration.

National School Choice Week started out small four years ago, with 150 events, including a celebration on the steps of the state Capitol in which the foundation participated. This year, the foundation celebrates again, one of more than 5,500 events around the nation and the world.

The growth and popularity of school choice has not stifled opponents, however. Among their complaints:

It’s racist/class warfare.

By allowing the funding of alternatives to traditional public schools, state agencies/parents/policy-makers deprive traditional schools and students and Georgia education is already suffering under imposed spending cuts.

Parents are taking the best and brightest and leaving behind struggling students in failing schools.

The voter breakdown in the 2012 charter school referendum victory put to rest the classist/racist argument: Minority and low-income parents clearly demanded choice. The state Charter Schools Commission, which won a hard battle for its existence, has shown its mettle and holds firm to tough standards for new, state-funded charter school applicants. And, as this foundation has noted numerous times, we’re still waiting for the names of traditional public schools shut down for poor performance. With school choice, the competition for students makes accountability key.

Camouflaged as concern for the children, funding and control usually are of highest concern to the education bureaucracy. With reduced funding complaints — like the blind men and the elephant — it depends on where you start comparing. An analysis by foundation president Kelly McCutchen finds that — aside from the ups and downs during the economic downturn — pre-K-12 education spending overall grew 27 percent from fiscal year 2003 to FY 2013, consuming 40.4 percent of the state budget.

How much did the local school systems’ share of the state budget change during that time? Less than 1 percent. In fact, just two states devote a higher share of the state budget to K-12 spending.

Clearly, legislators kept their promise to protect education funds. Education spending was eclipsed only by health care spending, which grew 103 percent, consumed 20.5 percent of the budget and increased nearly 8 percent in the period.

Nobody denies that public schools will continue, for a long time, to educate the bulk of Georgia’s and America’s children. Improvements must occur there as well. In Sweden, where since 1992 a voucher policy enables any student to attend any school, private school attendance grew from 1 percent to about 11 percent of students. A study found that the higher the percent of voucher students in a district, the better students did — up to the average education attained by age 24. And it found private school competition improved performance at nearby public schools.

The tools of education choice are expanding, too. It’s not just charter schools anymore. Online education is mushrooming in Georgia, from classes to entire schools. So are blended models, which incorporate digital learning and traditional classrooms. Homeschooler numbers are growing, socialization concerns in the distant past. Improved technology allows customizing learning at traditional schools. College and career academies help students bridge the gap beyond high school, even before graduation.

Every year, there’s more to celebrate in school choice. Best of all, celebrate advancing Georgia’s children, through an educated workforce, into economic progress. Instead of talking about income equality and redistribution, in Benjamin Franklin’s words, “More will be done for their happiness by inuring them to provide for themselves, than could be done by dividing all your estates among them.”

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.