Access Denied: Georgia Parents who Can’t Obtain Education Funds for School Choice

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For many families in Georgia, providing an education for their children is a huge sacrifice. Many middle class families rake and scrape in order to afford to provide tutoring or expensive therapy for challenges their children face such as a speech problem or issues requiring a reading specialist or occupational therapy. Other families pay for a good education for their children by moving into a great school district and paying a high mortgage or rent that is difficult to swing, and that may even lead to financial hardship for the family. For all of these situations, providing more access to the funds that are collected to cover the education costs of students in this state, including postsecondary education costs, is only reasonable.

In this past state legislative session in Georgia, Representative Mark Hamilton of Cumming introduced house bill 243, legislation that would provide such access to state education funds via a debit card that would link to an education savings account, much like a health savings account. (Senator Hunter Hill introduced a similar bill in the Senate, SB 92.)  An educational savings account (ESA) such as the one proposed in HB 243 would allow access to state funds “which may be used for qualifying educational expenses, including future postsecondary education expenses.”

Qualifying educational expenses” would include expenses families face such as tuition at participating schools, textbooks, payment for tutoring, purchasing curriculum, and online learning programs as well as many more specific expenses that families frequently incur when trying to provide for the individual learning needs of a child.  Unused portions of the education savings account (ESA) would roll over into the following year until graduation.  Then, the amount unused in the account could be used for postsecondary education.

There is definitely support for school choice programs in Georgia according to the 2014 Georgia Education Survey, conducted for the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University. The survey found that more than seven in 10 respondents (70.3 percent) approve of Georgia’s tax credit scholarships. Additionally, more than eight in 10 respondents (80.5 percent) support Georgia’s scholarship program for students with special needs. Deeper examination of the responses reveals that Georgians support providing help for all families, regardless of income level. Nearly seven in 10 (69.4 percent) of respondents agree that tax credit scholarships should be provided for all families, regardless of income, while only 28.3 percent believe that those scholarships should be available to families based on financial need only. Likewise, there is broad support for innovative measures like education savings accounts (ESAs) similar to those that now exist in four other states. Nearly seven in 10 (67.8 percent) of Georgia respondents supported ESA programs like the one in Arizona.

Maureen Downey, an education writer for the AJC, carried out quite a hack job on the concept of education savings accounts in her article “Back from the Dead/ Voucher Bill Disguised as Education Savings Account.”  In it she characterized HB 243 as “a bad anti-public education bill has found new life.”  She went on to state,

But Hamilton’s bill is an extension of the fallacious argument that ‘the money should follow the students because it’s their money’.  It’s not the students’ money. It’s not the parents’ money.

Dear Georgia Taxpayers, Here’s a newsflash for you: You the parent have no right to claim ANY state education funds for your own children if you dare to avoid public education and opt to homeschool your children at your own expense, to utilize online virtual learning, or to pay tuition to a private school (gasp!).

Never-mind the fact that most school choice options in Georgia, including public charter schools, are barred from touching any local tax dollars that are, after all, collected to cover the education expenses of ALL children residing in that school district  in Georgia.  And never-mind the obvious reality that for the plethora of parents in Georgia who decide to pay for either private school or to homeschool, the countless dollars that they must leave behind are a treasure store for the collective community to reap in total for their collective use.  Those local dollars have never been touched nor would they be utilized in any way through education savings accounts as proposed in HB 243, which would use state funds only.  Clearly, Ms. Downey could not be bothered by the public will of Georgians who overwhelmingly support all school choice measures according to survey and polling data, including education savings accounts. Georgia parents don’t even deserve a debit card to access one drop of the funds set aside to educate all of Georgia’s children if they dare to avail themselves of school choice options of any kind!

Hopefully, the entitlement mentality of the argument put forward by Ms. Downey will be disregarded, and the citizens of Georgia will make it crystal clear that they support freedom of choice and a more equitable distribution of the education funding collected for all children in Georgia. When the 2015-2016 Legislative Session begins in Georgia, it should deliver the access to state education funds that is desperately needed to help all the children in Georgia who struggle with individual education challenges, regardless of what means their parents have chosen for their schooling.

-Rhonda Gatch

Image courtesy of  world.edu