Legislation in the Georgia House of Representatives has been recently introduced that would establish an education savings account (ESA) program for low-income students (those in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level), students with special needs, bullied students, students in foster care, and students of active duty military members.
If passed, the ESAs would be available to parents of public school children to pay for tuition and fees at private and parochial schools. The funds could also be used to pay for textbooks, tutoring services, transportation costs, computers and other approved hardware, online courses, dual-enrollment courses, and educational therapies and services.
In the first year of the program, the number of participating students would be capped at “an amount equivalent to one-half of 1 percent of the state-wide total public school enrollment in the 2020–21 school year.” The enrollment cap would increase by another one-half of 1 percent each year until it tops out at 5 percent of the statewide total public school enrollment. The funding amount of each account would be equivalent to 100 percent of the amount allotted per pupil under the state’s school aid formula.
A study from the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, released in January 2021, found that an ESA program serving 5 percent of Georgia’s student population would result in roughly $1.7 billion “in economic benefits from higher lifetime earnings associated with increases in academic achievement,” at least $1 billion in economic benefits “associated with additional high school graduates [throughout the state],” and $13 million in economic benefits via reductions in crime through “competitive pressures to improve behavioral outcomes, improvements in discipline policies, and by providing access to cultures and peer groups that discourage risky behaviors.”
Copious other empirical research on school choice programs such as ESAs finds they offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment and deliver a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools. Additionally, these programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.
Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.
It is probably for these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling done by EdChoice released in December 2020 found 81 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 86 percent among current school parents, the highest level of support the program has received in the organization’s eight years of polling on the issue. This represents a 4-percentage point increase over 2019. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s seventh-annual National School Choice Poll, released in January 2021, which saw 78 percent support for ESA programs.
The school a child attends should not be determined solely by his or her ZIP code. However, this is currently the case for most Georgia children. The proposed ESA program would be the perfect complement to Georgia’s other school choice programs, the Georgia Special Needs Scholarship voucher and the Qualified Education Expense Tax Credit.
The goal of public education in the Peach State today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child has the opportunity to attend a quality school. There has not been a time when providing these opportunities has been more urgent and more needed than right now. Legislators should recognize that and allow families as many options as possible to get their children the education they need and deserve.
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