Kyle Wingfield: Proposal is pro-child and pro-education

Kyle Wingfield

Georgia's lawmakers have another opportunity to help thousands of children find the best education for their unique needs. Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Republican from Woodstock, has proposed allowing state education dollars to follow a limited number of students to the education of their choice.

Detractors will raise numerous objections, mostly about money. In seven years of following this debate, I've heard it all -- and written about how those objections are wrongheaded. But here's one basic claim I've never heard from opponents:

"Every single child in our entire state is best-served by the school that happens to be assigned to them based on where they live."

They won't say it, because they'd be laughed out of the room. It's patently ridiculous. In fact, some of the very legislators who will vote against Cantrell's bill have demonstrated it's ridiculous, by educating their own children somewhere besides their assigned public school.

If Georgia is serious about educating all children, its only choice is to ensure those children can access the education that is best for them. That means giving them options.

Recognizing this truth has been equated by choice opponents to disparaging public schools. That, too, is ridiculous. Public schools are designed to serve the needs of most children, and they are good at doing that.

Yet, "most children" is not "all children." A school that serves 99 out of 100 children well would rightly be held up as an exemplary school. But what about that hundredth child?

As Gov. Brian Kemp put it in his "School Choice Week" proclamation last month: "School choice allows families to evaluate the specific needs and unique traits of their children and leverage the option that best serves their educational experience." Amen.

Now, here is another basic claim you'll never hear:

"Every single child in our entire state has the means to choose a different education if their assigned public school isn't right for them."

Again, utterly ridiculous. No one would make such a claim. Everyone knows many, perhaps most, families do not have the means to make a different choice. They can't pay tuition at a private school. They can't quit work and homeschool. They can't move to a neighborhood with a better school. They're stuck.

We can un-stick them.

Proposals such as Cantrell's, to create education scholarship accounts, were designed with those two basic truths in mind: Some kids need a different option, and many of their families can't afford a different option on their own.

That's it. That's the whole issue. Or at least, it should be.

Every other claim opponents made has been systematically proven wrong. A wealth of academic research examines the options that are already offered, in Georgia and elsewhere. It demonstrates that options don't hurt public schools, financially or academically. They help put kids in schools that are less racially segregated, not more. They help kids perform better, achieve more, feel safer and experience more satisfaction.

Another red herring you'll hear is that this really is about helping wealthy people who already can afford other options. Nonsense. Here is how a child qualifies for the program Cantrell has proposed:

• Their family earns less than twice the federal poverty level, which this year is about $35,000 for a family of two or $53,000 for a family of four;

• They have been adopted from foster care;

• They have a parent who's an active-duty military service member;

• They have a disability and an Individualized Education Program; or

• Their local public school is not offering an option of 100% in-person learning.

In all cases, qualifying children had to have been enrolled in a public school. This is not about subsidizing tuition for "rich" people already sending their kids to private school.

This isn't anti-public schools. It isn't anti-teacher. It isn't anti-anything. Instead, it is pro-child and pro-education.

That may not be all you hear about it, but it's all you really need to know.

Dalton native Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org).

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