NOTE: In the interest of open debate, I have occasionally posted full-blown responses to my blog posts. The piece below, by Randy Hicks of the Georgia Center for Opportunity, is offered as a rebuttal to a blog item that I posted Thursday about legislation to create so-called “education savings accounts” in Georgia. In that post, I referred to the proposed program as a voucher program, and as you’ll see, Hicks takes issue with that description and several other points as well.
Below the rebuttal, I’ve posted my own response to Hick’s arguments.
— Jay Bookman
By Randy Hicks
President, Georgia Center for Opportunity
Jay Bookman’s overly strident column grossly mischaracterized both the content and intent of House Bill 243 by making several incorrect statements and ignoring the much-needed innovations to public education that voters in very large numbers say they want.
House Bill 243 proposes a pilot Education Savings Account (ESA) program to allow a very small number of parents whose children are not doing well in public school to withdraw their kids from that system and use state education funds to customize programs that meet their unique needs. The simple fact is that some children simply do not learn well in a traditional classroom setting. Even the best public and private schools cannot meet the needs of every child with a learning challenge or who needs an accelerated learning program but who can’t access one because they do not have a medically defined disability or because they don’t fall below certain income levels. It is rather shocking, really, to think that Bookman might prefer for students to fall through such gaps because of a religious-like adherence to outmoded public school funding models.
Does Bookman think a child who struggles with dyslexia or speech impediments or who requires a more occupational approach to learning should be forced to tread water in a school setting just because his problem doesn’t meet certain thresholds of severity? Why should the next Steve Jobs be held back from achieving his potential because he lives in a failing school district that doesn’t offer a magnate program in math or science? Why shouldn’t the next Meryl Streep or Yo Yo Ma be allowed pursue programs that will allow them to grow to contribute to the cultural progress of our nation? What about a child trapped in a cycle of bullying or other unhealthy peer relationships that the school is unable to address?
In his column, Bookman incorrectly asserted that parents would be able to use ESA funds with, “no accountability, no standards,” yet a simple reading of HB243 proves otherwise. Parents will only be able to use the proposed ESAs to pay for a limited list of alternative education options strictly controlled by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, which Bookman knows is chartered to ensure that all education programs that receive taxpayer support—including parochial and other private schools—meet or exceed the state standards for content, quality and delivery.
There is a reason that a whopping 76 percent of Georgia voters, both liberal and conservative, and 78 percent of African Americans want more school choice, and they specifically want Education Savings Accounts. They are tired of waiting for entrenched political interests on all sides to end the debate. Their kids need help now, not another damaging two, five, or ten years from now.
Finally, Bookman disingenuously characterized ESAs as a private school voucher program by ignoring the fact that the Georgia ESA program is specifically designed to be self-limiting. A typical voucher program pays for private schooling outright. House Bill 243 specifically restricts ESAs to the state portion of school funding, leaving every penny of the local and federal funding in the school and the district. By letting this small portion of public funds to follow the child, the parent must share the burden with the state on crafting a program for that child. Since more than ninety percent of children are suited to a public school setting, there is no threat of a mass exodus.
Besides, HB 243 is a pilot program with participation limited to a tiny one-half of one percent of the public school population in year one and only one percent in year two. That will give lawmakers, educators, and parents time to road test the program and make decisions based on real numbers, rather than numbers derived by research groups who admit there is no precedent on which to base their findings.
1.) Hicks describes HB 243 as a pilot program affecting “a very small number of parents whose children are not doing well in public school.” He notes that participation is “limited to a tiny one-half of one percent of the public school population in year one and only one percent in year two.”
True, yet untrue. Oddly, Hicks fails to address what happens in Year Three under HB 243. Here’s what the language of the bill says: “For the 2017-2018 school year and thereafter, there shall be no limit” on the number of participating students.
In other words, HB 243 is not a pilot project at all and it is misleading to suggest otherwise. Nor does it affect “only a very small number” of students. By year three, by law, it is automatically a full-blown program available to everyone, without limit on the number of those participating.
2.) As expected, Hicks takes issue with my characterization of the program as a school voucher program, calling it “disingenuous”. He does so on the grounds that HB 243 gives parents only the state portion of funding, which accounts for roughly 42 percent of per pupil funding, and does not include local or federal funding.
I’m honestly stumped on what difference that makes. I am not aware of any definition of “voucher” or “school voucher” limiting the term to programs that cover 100 percent of funding. If I have a $10 voucher that I use to buy a $20 product, for example, it remains a voucher nonetheless. HB 243 is a voucher program.
3.) Hicks also takes issue with my statement that “the money would flow with no accountability, no standards, no nothing.” I stand by that description. As I pointed out, there are no curriculum requirements in the bill, no teacher-quality requirements in the bill. Parents who collect the vouchers aren’t even required to report to the state how taxpayer funds were spent. The only apparent oversight of such spending will be through an unspecified number of “random audits” conducted by the governor’s office, a thoroughly inadequate safeguard against abuse.
Two other states have adopted Education Savings Accounts, and both have adopted much more extensive safeguards. Arizona requires that parents submit quarterly reports of how the money is spent, including receipts. Florida requires verification of expenditures before they are made, which is how administrators caught a family attempting to use taxpayers’ money to finance an “educational trip” to France. Georgia’s HB 243 does none of that.
4.) Throughout his rebuttal, Hicks cites “children (who) are not doing well in public school,” children with dyslexia or speech impediments, children with learning challenges, etc. But the reality is that such children would be a very small minority of those who take advantage of the proposed program. They are being used as the sympathetic public face for changes that would be far more profound.
In Florida, by contrast, ESA eligibility is limited by law to children with
autism, Down syndrome, Prader-Willi syndrome, spina-bifida, Williams syndrome and other disabilities. In Arizona, eligibility is limited to those with disabilities, those in failing schools or those in foster care or military families.
Again, Georgia’s proposed program has none of those limitations.