If you listen to most objections to school-choice programs, they really come down to money. Choice advocates talk about money for students; choice opponents talk about money for schools.
The latter group’s belief that our public schools are a never-quantified number of dollars away from excellence dies hard. On that premise, fights from state-approved charter schools to tax-credit scholarships to education savings accounts — and, soon, Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District — have been waged in Georgia.
But what if the issue isn’t really about cutting into today’s funding of and enrollment in public schools, but instead finding a way to maintain even the current level of affordability while educating hundreds of thousands of additional students?
Over the next decade and a half, Georgia’s k-12 age population is expected to rise by some 320,000. That’s one new school-aged child for every six today.
That surge is projected to take place while the number of Georgians 65 and older — who, as a group, consume more in public services than they pay in taxes — grows even more rapidly. The share of working-age Georgians will fall sharply as a result, putting more strain than ever on our public finances.
This student growth won’t pay for itself. So the question isn’t whether school-choice programs drain money from public schools, but whether they can help us avoid an unmanageable increase in education spending: almost $2.6 billion a year at current funding rates.
Local districts currently pay about 40 percent of the total per-pupil cost, so their share would exceed $1 billion a year, with the lion’s share of it falling on metro Atlanta districts. Would they rather raise taxes by $1 billion a year, cut costs by $1 billion a year, or maybe stop treating every new choice program like it’s worse than the Zika virus?
The state portion of spending would still increase in this scenario for programs such as ESAs. But there is no cost-free solution to this dilemma, only solutions that cost less than others.
Such programs would have the added benefit of injecting some needed competition into our education marketplace.
Georgia’s public schools have improved over the past couple of decades, with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rising steadily. Steadily, but slowly: If our students’ scores continue to rise at the same long-term rates, they won’t reach the level of proficiency that the top-performing states and nations achieve now until anywhere from 2025 (fourth-grade math) to 2079 (eighth-grade reading).
That rate of improvement won’t cut it, not when we’re counting on today’s students to bear a larger economic burden than their older cousins, not to mention their parents.
That means maximizing the potential of more students than ever. To get there, families need the ability to send their students to the schools that best fit their needs. In most cases, that will be the local public school. In many others, though, it won’t.
That’s OK. Actually, it’s more than OK: It’s absolutely vital to Georgia’s future.