Gov. Nathan Deal appointed me to serve as the 4th District representative to the state Board of Education in Georgia from 2010 to 2012. The SBOE approves the Department of Education’s budget. The DOE dispenses approximately $6 billion in state money and $3 billion in federal money to the public K-12 schools (elementary, middle and high schools) in Georgia’s 180 school districts.
On the board I learned how much confusion, misinformation and mythology exist about education, particularly when it comes to private and charter schools. To help me with the facts, I leaned on two friends from my SBOE days: Brian Burdette, who served on the board for 10 years and chaired its charter school committee, and Lou Erste, the associate superintendent for charter schools at the DOE.
I want to elaborate on the three scenarios in which public money could be perceived as being used for a private or charter school.
Point/Counterpoint: Public Funds for Private Schools
The Georgia General Assembly this spring passed legislation to increase from $58 million to $100 million the annual cap on a tax credit for donations that fund scholarships to private schools. Should public money support private schools?
Scenario 1 represents the closest thing to a voucher program in Georgia. In 2007, the Georgia legislature passed S.B. 10, which provides scholarships for special education students to attend private schools.
To qualify, a student with special needs must attend a public school for one year. The next year, the parents can get the equivalent of the state money that would be spent on their child at a public school and use it at private school. The state cuts a check to the parents, who then must use it toward private school tuition.
Scenario 1 is a voucher scheme. But do we want to deny over 5,000 students with special needs who receive S.B. 10 scholarships the option of attending a private school with public money? I view it as heartless to say these vouchers are evil.
A contributor writes a check (limits apply) to a student scholarship organization, which gives the money to a Jewish school for scholarships. The contributor gets a 1-for-1 tax credit for the donation. This program has been so successful that the cap is being increased from $58 million to $100 million.
Under this scenario, a tuition payment converts into a tax-free contribution under state law. And I say that’s awesome. Jewish education is one of the best guarantees for sustaining the American Jewish community, and anything we can do to make it more affordable for parents is worthwhile. Why would anyone in our community oppose this?
The last scenario is the one most rife with misunderstanding: charter schools. Charter schools are NOT private schools that get public financing. Charter schools may not charge tuition, and the vast majority of them report to a school district superintendent and a local school board.
Charter schools must abide by the same federal and state laws as public schools — no picking and choosing of students, no denial of students with special needs.
Charter schools receive funding like any other public school, albeit usually less. In other words, the local school boards decide how much charter schools get, with a floor set by state law.
Charter schools obtain waivers to gain autonomy to do as they like in certain areas, such as hiring and firing teachers, requiring school uniforms, and changing the curriculum. In exchange, charter schools commit to meeting certain academic levels for their students. If they fail, they are shut down.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of our public schools. Has anyone seen a public school shut down for poor performance?
With Georgia still in the lower rungs of U.S. academic performance, we must find ways to improve the situation. If the solution involves putting public money in some situations into private schools, so be it. Throwing more money on outdated methods is not the solution.
More important, for our community, the key to survival is getting more youths into Jewish schools, and any mechanism that makes it easier and more affordable is something I cheer for.
You’ve read the Point; now read Scott Sherris’ Counterpoint.