Opinion: Expand school choice, not government’s education monopoly

In a guest column, longtime Georgia school choice proponent Glenn A. Delk urges the 2023 Legislature to increase programs that give parents greater freedom in choosing how and where to educate their children.

Delk is a retired lawyer who advocated for parental rights in education, representing clients seeking school choice, establishing public charter schools and developing and operating private schools.

By Glenn A. Delk

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently published a series of guest editorials on what the upcoming General Assembly should do about K-12 education in Georgia. Most were written by members of the “Education Industrial Complex,” and all argued for more spending on government-run schools and against providing parents with more educational freedom and options.

I believe the General Assembly should resist the call for more funding of the government monopoly known as public schools and instead pursue policies that expand educational freedom for families by abolishing the cap on tuition tax-credit scholarships and authorizing education savings accounts. (Education savings accounts deposit public funds into government-authorized savings accounts that parents can use for private school tuition and fees, online learning programs, private tutoring or other approved learning services and materials.)

There are several reasons for my view.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

First, Article VIII, Section 1 of the Georgia Constitution does not require the state to operate schools, but to provide citizens with the funds to secure an adequate public education: “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia. Public education for the citizens prior to the college or postsecondary level shall be free and shall be provided for by taxation.” A fair reading of this provision is that our constitution gives citizens the right to require the state to provide them with a free and adequate public education; it does not give the state government a monopoly over providing the education.

Second, the current governmental monopoly does not need more funds. In fact, the General Assembly increased K-12 expenditures from $23.1 billion in 2019-2020 to $26 billion in 2021-22, an increase of nearly $2.9 billion, or 12.6%.

Most Georgians are unaware of the true per pupil spending due to the shell games played by the Education Industrial Complex. As Kennesaw State University economist Ben Scafidi found in a 2017 study, for at least 20 years, the education establishment in Georgia has purposely understated the amount spent on K-12 education; in 2014 alone, Scafidi estimated the amount to be $3.5 billion.

Third, Georgia and most of the country have tried increased funding for the current monopoly for five decades, without any improvements in academic outcomes. In another 2017 study, Scafidi found that, from 1950 to 2015, while student enrollment in the U.S. at the K-12 level grew by 100%, the number of non-teaching personnel employed by the Education Industrial Complex increased by 700%.

As Scafidi put it, if the increase in non-teachers had merely matched the growth in student enrollment, taxpayers would have saved $35 billion annually, or $805 billion from 1992 to 2015. Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly could have used those savings to give all teachers a permanent $11,000 annual pay hike.

Increased funding of the current system has not resulted in providing Georgia’s students with an adequate education: Less than 30% of Georgia’s high school students are proficient in the four major academic subject areas, whether viewed in light of ACT/SAT results, Georgia’s own annual tests or the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In fact, the current system has caused significant economic damage to students through its handling of the pandemic. According to a recent study by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, Georgia’s K-12 students can expect to earn 6% less over their lifetimes as a result of learning losses suffered as a result of disruptions and interruptions to classroom instruction from the pandemic.

Fourth, we have evidence that increased educational freedom not only results in better academic outcomes, but in substantial cost savings to the taxpayers. According to a January 2021 study by Educational Freedom Institute director Corey DeAngelis for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the majority of some 17 studies on the subject found private school choice programs had a positive effect on math and reading achievement. He calculated that every student who was provided with an education savings account could be expected to see an increase of nearly $20,000 in lifetime earnings. If 5% of Georgia’s nearly 1.7 million K-12 students were to receive an education savings account, DeAngelis predicts Georgia would see a billion dollars in economic benefits from more students graduating from high school and $1.7 billion in higher lifetime earnings.

The final reason the General Assembly should choose increased educational freedom over increased spending is that polls have consistently shown that more than 70% of all Georgia voters, whether Republicans, Democrats, Independents, white, black, Hispanic, liberal or conservative, support school choice, whether in the form of education savings accounts, tuition tax-credit scholarships, charter schools, or tuition-free inter-district public school choice. The most recent evidence of the demand for more educational freedom is the fact that, on Jan. 3, 2023, taxpayer applications for the tuition tax credit exceeded the new $120 million cap, in one day.

Georgia’s political leaders should pass legislation that authorizes education savings accounts, removes the cap on tuition tax credits completely, and authorizes inter-district public school choice without tuition. In other words, meet their constitutional obligation to give all families the freedom and economic means to make the best choice for each student.