Chairman’s Resignation Provides Paths For School Choice

This week’s Courier Herald column:

The Georgia Republican party asked voters on their 2016 primary ballot if they wanted expanded options for school choice in the state. 75% of those answering the non-binding question voted in favor of school choice. Despite being at the bottom of the ballot, more people answered that question than voted in the U.S. Senate race, which led the ticket.

Other polls have found similar support. The American Federation for Children polled the issue last year nationally, showing 84% of Republicans, 67% of Independents, and even 55% of Democratic voters favored school choice. But it’s the ballot question – one that asked every Republican who actually showed up to vote rather than a statistically significant sample – that sticks in the craw of school choice advocates.

Republicans control every statewide elected office in Georgia, and near super-majorities in both chambers of the Georgia legislature. It would appear that with Republicans having such a tight grip on the wheels of power, it would be easy to pass legislation favored by three out of four of their voting base. It hasn’t been.

True, there was some progress made this year for the first time since the defeat of the Opportunity School District plan. While that plan figured much more heavily on holding traditional schools accountable for performance than offering new choice alternatives, the possibility of charter operators taking over failing schools had it branded as a school choice program. Its failure stalled momentum that had been picking up steam for school choice initiatives, such as the 2012 State Charter Schools Amendment.

This year, the legislature passed a bill increasing the amount of tax credits for donations to Student Scholarship Organizations to $100 million annually. There was also a bill that gave more money to existing state charter schools, though they still receive significantly less per student in total funding than traditional school systems.

Many of the failures to advance school choice issues have pointed at the Senate for years. The grumblings have been mostly quiet, but this year there was a public acknowledgement of a difference of opinion on the subject of school choice. After the passage of HB 787 that increased funding for charter schools – notably during a year when the state’s K-12 Quality Basic Education formula was fully funded for the first time in decades – Senate Education Chairman Lindsey Tippins resigned his chairmanship.

Tippins had earlier held the bill in his committee before gutting it to send to the floor. The bill was later amended back to the House’s language and passed the Senate overwhelmingly.

Tippins stated concern is that with some charter schools now getting the state’s average contribution per student (instead of getting an amount based on the amount given to Georgia’s five lowest paid systems), those charter schools will now get more money than half Georgia school systems. His reasoning is a slight of hand that would make any opponent of charter schools proud, but it leaves out two important facts.

Charter Schools don’t get the local property tax and E-SPLOST dollars that remain with a traditional school system when a student leaves to go to a charter school. But even more important, a charter school only receives statewide average funding if the traditional districts in its attendance zone earn above that average. In the case where a charter operates in an area where traditional schools spend below the statewide average, the charter school would get an amount equal to that instead.

Tippins chose to resign his Chairmanship after the bill was allowed to pass. As the only Senate Republican vote in opposition to the bill, Tippins cited the caucus difference of opinion on the issue to the Marietta Daily Journal saying “if that bill is reflective of their vision for education in the state of Georgia, they got the wrong person being the committee chairman.”

Senator Tippins sold himself short. Given that only he and six Democrats opposed the measure, Tippins wasn’t just out of lockstep with his own party’s majority. He was even to the left of the majority of the Democratic caucus in his opposition to the bill.

It’s an election year, and when the General Assembly returns things will be different on the education front. There will be a new Governor, a new Lieutenant Governor, and new Education Chairmen in both the House and the Senate, as House Education Chairman Brooks Coleman is retiring.

Republican voters overwhelmingly favor school choice. The elections before us and the two open committee chairmanships provide an opportunity for a fresh start – one that moves beyond empty bumper sticker slogans and unfilled promises and onto real choice and opportunity for all of Georgia’s children.

Charlie Harper is the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com and the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, which focuses on policy issues of Business Climate, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He also serves on the board of directors of a charter school.

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