Is expanding school choice a wise choice for Georgia?

In touring a private academy Wednesday in his first official school visit as Georgia's new lieutenant governor, Geoff Duncan outdid Betsy DeVos. In her early weeks in office, the controversial U.S. education secretary went to a public school before visiting a private school to spotlight the benefits of school choice.

With Duncan’s high-profile visit to a religious school in Atlanta where students receive tuition subsidies from the state, education advocates fear a signaling of a renewed push for school choice.

The Republican lieutenant governor isn’t being coy about this intent; he’s been clear he wants broader options for families who opt out of public education. (His own three sons attend the high-achieving public schools in his home county of Forsyth.)

Writing in this space earlier this week, Duncan contends school choice can have a profound impact on a student's life by allowing them the opportunity to attend a public charter school, online academy, home school or a private school with a scholarship. And he says "proven results" show choice works.

Researchers are still debating whether the experiments of school choice do much more than divert dollars from underfunded public schools. The choice menu in Georgia now includes public charter schools, vouchers for special education students to use in private schools, and tax credits whereby taxpayers pledge money for private school scholarships and earn a tax credit for the full contribution. Critics of the credit contend that money otherwise would have gone into the public treasury and possibly to public school budgets.

Duncan wants Georgia to explore another choice mechanism: education savings accounts or ESAs in which parents receive public dollars through a state-authorized savings account that can fund private school costs, online learning programs, tutoring, community college, higher education expenses and other sanctioned learning services.

Tapping state funds for private education choices comes with a price. "These programs can lower the pot of money that can go to public schools and to the overall revenue for the state," said Stephen Owens, an education analyst with the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, a public education advocacy group. "School choice assumes there is going to be a choice of the school and that school is going to be better than the local public school, which isn't always the right assumption, especially when you consider rural communities."

In the past, rural lawmakers in Georgia rebuffed choice legislation, saying it would not help their constituents since few viable private school choices or charter schools exist outside the metro region. Today, both political parties adhere to uncompromising scripts with less tolerance for chinks in the armor, making rural legislators hesitate to jump off the school choice train.

Another change: In the beginning, school choice proponents contended more choice would improve academic performance. But when test scores failed to rise, the argument shifted to longer-term benefits. At a Georgia Public Policy Foundation forum Wednesday for National School Choice Week, choice advocate and Kennesaw State University economics professor Ben Scafidi said, "The evidence is that the gain from school choice for students who choose isn't going to be on test scores. It's going to be on postsecondary success and later-life outcomes. … There is new research in the last 10 years on the benefits of non-cognitive outcomes, like grit, persistence, patience, behaving. Those things lead to postsecondary attainment and later-life outcomes beneficial to those children."

Yet, in his justification for more private school choice, Lt. Gov. Duncan pointed to Georgia’s failing public schools, a designation determined mostly on test scores. When Georgia assigns its public schools a grade, they earn no extra credit for later-life outcomes, grit or patience. Those future benefits that Scafidi and other choice supporters cite are either immeasurable or not measured because the required longitudinal studies to track students into their later lives are expensive.

"The school choice community is using the kind of arguments many of us in public school advocacy have used for a long time," said Margaret Ciccarelli, policy chief for the state's largest teacher advocacy group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "We need to take a comprehensive view of student success that doesn't rely too heavily on student assessment and looks at more factors."