Charlie Harper: Losing The Politics of School Choice

Charlie Harper

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

School Choice has been a stated policy goal of the Republican Party and most GOP candidates since before control of the Governor’s mansion switched hands in 2002.  Some progress has been made.  State Charter Schools were formed, then re-authorized after losing a Supreme Court case and winning on the ballot with a constitutional amendment. 

As recently as 2012, more than a two thirds of Georgia voters demanded more educational choice at the ballot box.  This wasn’t limited to GOP territory.  Democratic strongholds in urban Atlanta were among the strongest supporters of choice. 

So what has happened since?  Not much.  Except another statewide ballot contest.

Two things happened with the Opportunity School District vote of 2016. The school choice concept was conflated with the state taking over failing schools.  In addition, national teachers’ unions that were embarrassed in 2012 came to the table with significant funding to defeat the 2016 initiative, along with the specific and immediate accountability that would have come with it.

There hasn’t been much progress on school choice issues in Georgia since the 2012 victory. It’s a direct result of Republicans ceding a large part of the issue, and then proceeding to negotiate only among themselves. Even though as recently as May 2016 Republican primary voters used the ballot box to demand more school choice solutions.

Republicans have used their majorities to put roughly half of annual year over year budget increases directly to education, and have occasionally expanded choices on a limited basis for alternatives to one size fits all education.  Their opposition is winning on this issue, and the children continue to lose.  Charter Schools exist, but are under-funded even in terms of state dollars, with no access at all to local education funds.

In negotiating against themselves for this result, Republicans have been timid in approaching other choice options for fear of upsetting….the same national unions that have vowed to destroy any alternative to the status quo that doesn’t put more money into a broken system with no accountability for results.

It’s now an election year, and it is time for advocates of choice to end this one-sided bargain. We know who the status quo education establishment is lining up behind.  It’s time for voters to figure out where their candidates stand.

There will be time to get these answers on the campaign trail, but there are more meaningful and tangible examples to be found while the legislature is in session. 

House Bill 482 creates an Education Scholarship Account program similar to those found in other states including our neighbors Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee.  Through an ESA, parents would be authorized to utilize the funds the state would have spent on their child to instead create a customizable education experience. Local governments get to keep the money from their parents’ property taxes to teach other students.  This would be an alternative in areas that lack critical mass to form an entirely separate charter school, but still provide another avenue of choice to thousands of students annually.

Currently nearly 12,000 mostly low-income students are served through Georgia’s tuition tax credit program. However, with thousands more stuck on waiting lists the state has not increased the cap on the program since 2013. Meanwhile, over that time, our neighbor to the south, Florida, has raised the cap of their version of this program from $200 million to $700 million. Georgia House Bill 217 would raise the annual cap for the tuition tax credit program, which would have the same fiscal effect of HB 482.  More students could receive better educations tailored to their individual needs, all while using fewer dollars than would have been spent had they attended a traditional school.

And for the existing and future state charter schools, House Bill 787 would raise the funding of these cashed-strapped schools from the average of the bottom five poorest school districts to the state average. The usual critics decry this funding as taking it away from them, despite the charter schools being mandated to perform better than their traditional peers but are being asked to do so while receiving only a fraction of their dollars.  If it’s about bang for the buck, charter schools are already proving their superiority in most cases.

November’s elections are likely going to be as competitive as any we’ve seen in this state in 16 years.  We know where the education establishment is going to line up.  The party that says it lines up with parents and students still has time to demonstrate that school choice isn’t a forgotten slogan, but an achievable opportunity that is in front of us all, right now.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation