Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

One choice bill for education reform


School choice is about giving students a chance to escape bad schools. But it’s not only about that. If it were, the latest champion for the cause probably wouldn’t hail from Forsyth County.

“We have several very highly rated private schools in Forsyth County,” says state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming. “Yet, Forsyth County … is scholastically one of the top-achieving school systems. So why do parents choose to spend money to put them in (private schools)? Because they made the choice. They’re involved in their kids’ education, and they see things that those private schools offer that the public system doesn’t.

“I can say the same thing about home school. I know parents in Forsyth County that home school. Once again, we’ve got one of the finest school systems in the state, in the Southeast, and yet they’ve chosen to home school. So to me (the desire for choice) is not an indication” of whether the schools are good or bad.

Those observations and others helped spur Hamilton to propose a new choice measure called Education Savings Accounts . House Bill 243 would allow a relatively small number of Georgia students to use the state money allotted for their k-12 schooling for a variety of educational uses, such as private school tuition or a home-school curriculum.

While some people have wrongly likened an ESA to a voucher, it’s more akin to a Health Savings Account. Hamilton calls it “a parent-driven, consumer-driven education pathway.”

The precise amount of funding would vary by child and school district, as the bill would use the QBE funding formula to calculate exactly what the state would have spent on that particular student, between $3,500 and $5,000 per child per year.

To allay concerns of a “huge exodus” from public schools, HB 243 would cap usage to 0.5 percent of the total student population (about 8,500 kids) in the first year and 1 percent (about 17,000 kids) thereafter. Experience in other states with ESAs, Arizona and Florida, suggests the number will likely be closer to 1,000, Hamilton says.

In any event, because the accounts would be limited to kids enrolled in public school or entering kindergarten or the first grade, Hamilton says the effect on the state budget should be neutral, and the effect on local school budgets ought to be positive.

“We’re only taking the state portion,” he says. “So (districts) still get their local property-tax portion that they receive, even though that student’s not there, and then they also continue to receive federal dollars.”

The most important thing is to match kids with the schools that best serve their needs. To that end, Hamilton relates a bit of experience with his own, now-grown children.

“I have three children,” he says. “All three of those children are different, and … we as parents made the determinations as to how their education path was going to go. And each one of them had a slightly unique, different combination of public school, private school and private tutoring.

“And that’s all we’re trying to do (with HB 243), is … give parents a pathway that they can do that, and in so doing, have the ability to have some financial assistance.”

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.