Why school-choice objections failed judicial muster

Opposing school choice is lud- ... er ... just silly. (AJC Photo / Taylor Carpenter)
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Opposing school choice is lud- ... er ... just silly. (AJC Photo / Taylor Carpenter)

One of the most disappointing things about Georgia’s failure to expand school choice measures has been the way too many lawmakers have accepted choice opponents’ premises at face value.

So, money for choice programs is seen as money diverted from schools, not devoted to education. The expenses public schools don't incur to educate students they lose are never quantified, only the forgone revenue.

Academic performance, deemed an unhealthy obsession leading to high-stakes testing in public schools, is nonetheless the only metric opponents will use to gauge choice programs’ worth. Programs that help individual children attend private school become justifications for public oversight of those students, often by the same state bureaucracy that couldn’t prevent the public-school mediocrity that drove them away in the first place.

It was refreshing, then, to see how summarily some of these objections were dismissed when presented in a court of law. Earlier this month, a Fulton County Superior Court judge tossed out all but one count* of a lawsuit seeking to overturn Georgia's tax-credit scholarship program as unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, wrote Judge Kimberly M. Esmond Adams, failed to show “that the (scholarship) program increases their tax burden either by causing a net loss for the state or by increasing their tax bill.” Adams’ ruling instead accepts two counter-arguments that seem intuitive but are somehow lost on choice opponents in the Legislature and elsewhere:

“First, the state is already paying to educate each child in public school. When these children leave the public schools with a scholarship, the state no longer has to bear this expense,” she notes. “Second, no scholarship can exceed the amount of money that the state would have otherwise spent on these children. Indeed, as some of the scholarships will inevitably be only a portion of the amount the state pays to educate each child, the program may actually save the state money.”

The facts suggest that’s correct. While state spending per public-school pupil has increased in recent years, the average tax-credit scholarship award has instead fallen. According to the most recent available data, the average scholarship award equals roughly 70 percent of state per-pupil spending.

Three-quarters of scholarship families earn about $62,000 or less. That puts them barely above the level that would qualify the children in a family of four for Medicaid in Georgia, and well below the level most reasonable people would consider comfortably able to afford private school. So the vast majority of scholarship recipients are kids who would otherwise attend public school. Given all that, it’s not much of a leap to conclude the state is saving money when they go to private school.

Yet, for some reason, lawmakers continue to balk at the “cost” of expanding a money-saving program. Maybe they should stop listening to its opponents.

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*You may have been wondering about the one count Adams allowed to go forward. It concerns the state’s obligation to enforce a prohibition on scholarship donors designating their gifts for a particular student, a provision intended to keep people from donating for their own children’s benefit. By all means, if a scholarship organization is breaking the law, it should be shut down.