The Georgia Constitution states it clearly:
“The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.”
Note the term “public education.” Taxpayers are not obligated to provide a private education but a public education. If you want a private education, you may certainly go get one. But the taxpayers of Georgia are under no obligation to pay for it.
Not yet, anyway.
As you may have noticed, the whole concept of public education is under a multi-pronged attack in this state. In its more subtle forms, you see it in Gov. Nathan Deal’s effort to strong-arm control of local schools away from local school boards, local communities and local taxpayers and instead invest that control entirely in his own office. Among other things, it would give the governor the power to bring in for-profit companies to run schools with no control at the local level.
Now, that approach might be worth debating if there was some indication that the governor’s office possessed some superior expertise, experience or insight into the operation of schools. I’ve seen no reason to think that, and no evidence of it has been provided. The fact that the proposal is being sold as “choice” is even more ludicrous, because once the governor is given that power, choice no longer exists. It is his choice, but no one else’s. And that power would devolve to not just this governor but to every governor yet to come.
Even more dangerous are bills introduced in both the state House and Senate to create what are euphemistically called “Education Savings Accounts.” They’re not savings accounts at all. Described honestly — which is something their backers try to avoid — these so-called ESAs are really taxpayer-funded vouchers to finance private-school education.
Under the two bills, HB 243 and SB 92, parents would be encouraged to withdraw their children from public schools with a taxpayer-provided cash subsidy, equal to the amount that the state would have spent on their education had they remained in the public system. Depending on the school district, the voucher would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 a year.
Under the proposals, the money would be put into an account and used by parents for any educational expense they deem worthy — private tuition, private tutoring, books, home schooling, field trips. If the family doesn’t need to spend it on those things, it can set aside taxpayer’s money that was ostensibly collected to finance K-12 education and instead use it to finance college. It could even be spent on things such as private music lessons. **
Think about that: We have schools in this state that haven’t been able to keep their doors open for 180 days a year; we have schools in which band and music programs have had to be slashed to the bone or even eliminated. And we’re going to divert state taxpayer money to finance private piano and violin lessons for private-school students whose parents would be paying for such things anyway?
The theory captured in the state constitution is that education of our children is our collective obligation, and that it ought to be discharged collectively. The theory of the voucher bills is quite different. It envisions government as little more than a glorified collection agency on behalf of affluent parents who deem public systems insufficient. The state will use its powers of taxation to extract hundreds of millions of dollars from workers, shoppers and businesses. The state will then hand that money to parents, to be spent as they see fit as if the money were their own.
This isn’t reform. This is abandonment.
Even more remarkably, the money would flow with no accountability, no standards, no nothing. We’ve had a lot of debate in recent years about the need to toughen education standards and to make sure that public schools produce educated citizens capable of competing in a global marketplace. We’ve also stressed the importance of improving the quality of certified Georgia teachers, including requiring them to take subject-matter tests and be more accountable for their performance. The state Senate this week even passed a resolution attempting to dictate the contents of Advanced Placement history courses taught around the country.
Yet these voucher bills abandon altogether the concepts of standards and accountability. Under HB 243, the complete extent of the state curriculum requirement is that private schools that receive vouchers teach “at least the subjects of English and language arts, mathematics, social studies, and science.” It is absolutely silent on the content of those courses, on teacher qualifications in those schools, on textbook quality, on instructional days and any other issue.
Call me old-fashioned, but if the state is going to use its awesome powers to collect taxes from me, the state incurs an obligation to at least try to ensure that the money it has taken is spent as wisely as possible. If it’s the state’s responsibility to educate the children of Georgia, as our state constitution says, that responsibility cannot be fulfilled by simply handing parents a wadful of cash from taxpayers. It is not the parents’ money, no matter how many times conservative politicians try to pretend otherwise.
Look again to the constitution: It speaks of the state “provision” of an education, not merely the state “financing” of an education.
It’s fascinating to see this utter lack of interest in oversight of how public taxpayer dollars are spent coming from political leaders who in every other context insist on strict — in some cases absurdly strict — oversight of public dollars. They have tried to insist, for example, that welfare and food-stamp recipients be drug-tested as a condition of eligibility, to ensure that no tax money is wasted on them. Yet they are willing to literally give away private-school voucher dollars with almost no oversight in how they’re used?
It’s doubtful that either of these voucher bills will become law this legislative session, although thanks to powerful backers, HB 243 did win approval from the House Ways and Means Committee last week. But together with the governor’s proposals and the so-called tuition tax-credit program, they are important as the latest examples of a constant, never-ending effort to undermine public education in Georgia on behalf of a private model.
So let’s end the charade: If backers of voucher programs want to change the state constitution, put it to a vote. Let’s stop playing coy and stop trying to deny the true nature of this game being played. Let’s ask the people of Georgia, point blank, whether the state constitution should be altered to allow public tax money to be diverted to finance private school education. No more quiet little raids on the integrity of public education, stealing a little this way and a little that way. Put it to the people.
My bet is the answer from voters would be no. The supporters of voucher programs also believe the answer will be no, which is precisely why they continue to sneak and double-talk their way toward such a program rather than propose it directly.
Finally, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the state of public education.
Since 2002, the ratio of Georgia public-school students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches has jumped from 45.1 percent to 62.4 percent. Among other things, that reflects our state’s ongoing economic challenges, but the change has also probably increased the desire of some of the remaining middle-class parents to withdraw from the public school system if possible. It’s a matter of class as much as if not more than a matter of race.
In addition, extensive research tells us that when poverty rises, educational challenges rise as well, and a poorer student body becomes more expensive to educate properly. Yet as Georgia’s public school population has become more poor, and thus more expensive to educate, inflation-adjusted spending per pupil has fallen in Georgia.
The state in particular now pays a significantly smaller share of the cost of educating children than it has historically. As recently as 2002, the state of Georgia covered 48.8 percent of the cost of K-12 education in the state, with local and federal governments contributing the rest. By 2012, according to the most recent Census data, the state’s contribution had fallen to 42.5 percent.
But you know what? Even with declining state support and an increasingly poor student body, the performance of Georgia students on national tests has steadily if slowly improved. While state leaders fall short of their own obligations to schools and condemn everyone else for the schools’ alleged failures, the system itself is making real progress.
Put another way, the last people who should be portraying themselves as the rescuers of Georgia’s constitutionally mandated public school system are those leaders at the Capitol who have failed year after year to meet their own obligations to that system.
** As another special little feature, HB 243 requires the state to “qualify private financial management firms to manage education savings accounts and … establish reasonable fees for such firms’ services.” The power to “qualify” such firms for what might be a pretty lucrative business would be granted to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, further concentrating an immense degree of unchecked control over education in the office of one elected official.
All in all, I’m not sure that legislators are fully cognizant of the degree of institutional control they are surrendering to the executive branch through such bills.