Opinion: New study suggests vouchers may help Georgia public schools


Kyle Wingfield, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution opinion columnist, is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute. In this guest column, Wingfield says legislation in the Georgia House and Senate allowing tax dollars to go toward private school tuition may help public education’s bottom line.

Senate Bill 173 passed out of committee Thursday in a 9-3 vote. It would establish "scholarship" accounts enabling parents to use the portion of the money their local school district gets from the state to pay private school tuition or to other providers for things such as textbooks and tutoring. There's been no financial analysis of the Senate version, but a similar bill in the House, House Bill 301, would require about $48 million in the first year, rising to a maximum of about $543 million in a decade as more students participate, according to state auditors.

Wingfield says a new study by a senior fellow at his conservative policy foundation points to a financial upside to such proposals. (For another view on vouchers, go here.)

By Kyle Wingfield

Most complaints about school-choice programs eventually come down to money, and the misguided notion there isn't enough to go around for Georgia's public schools and the other educational options students and families want.
History demonstrates otherwise: In 2018, Georgia lawmakers voted to fully fund the QBE formula for public schools while also raising the cap on the state's popular tax-credit scholarship.

This year, they are poised to raise teacher’s salaries by more than $2,500 per year while also weighing proposals to create new Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) for students. Even in the past, when QBE wasn’t fully funded, education funding held steady as a percentage of total state spending. The "austerity cuts" to education owed to a sluggish economy, and ending school-choice programs wouldn't have come close to making up the difference.

All of that said, is there any merit to the idea that ESAs – which are different from vouchers because students can use them not only to pay private school tuition but for homeschooling materials, tutoring or even college tuition – would put a financial burden on public school districts? Actually, it’s quite the opposite.

A new study by Jeffrey Dorfman, an economics professor at the University of Georgia and a senior fellow for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, finds county school districts would in fact save money at the margin if some of their students chose to leave and use an ESA, or a traditional voucher for that matter. (Due to a lack of available data, Dorfman was not able to examine Georgia's city school districts.) Dorfman determined the financial impact by calculating the marginal cost of educating one more (or fewer) student in each county district, as well as the average variable cost.

“Voucher and ESA programs that provide funding in amounts equal to a district’s state funding per pupil actually raise the district’s financial capacity to educate its remaining students because the programs would remove less money than the district saves by having fewer students to educate,” Dorfman writes. “In addition, this report reveals that in all except the smallest districts, vouchers or ESAs could be funded up to the level of average variable cost and leave more than enough money to educate the remaining students at the same expenditure level as before.

The differences may surprise or even shock some observers. The difference between the marginal cost of educating a student and the state’s portion of per pupil funding was more than $5,000 in 20 of the state’s 159 county school districts, more than $3,000 in 121 districts, and more than $1,000 in all but four of them. The difference in half of the districts was more than $3,825. It was a net positive for all 159 county districts.

It’s worth noting we are talking about an average marginal cost. After all, at any given moment, a district might be able to take one more student without incurring much additional expense – or that last student may force the district to hire an additional teacher. The average takes account of both possibilities, plus all the ones in between.

Both ESA proposals this year – House Bill 301 and Senate Bill 173 – tie the funding level to each district’s state funding, so county districts should be better off financially, not worse, if some of their students decide to choose ESAs. Opponents of these bills will have to find another argument for why Georgia’s students and families shouldn’t be able to choose the education that’s best for them.