Opinion: Greater choice will mean more Ga. graduates

When one Georgia child in five is not graduating high school, it’s a distress signal. Not everyone is destined for college, but those dropouts’ untapped potential represents a loss of economic opportunity and, potentially, a taxpayer burden.

Too many consider this an education funding problem. The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement issues a “Financial Efficiency Star Rating” for schools and districts, comparing per-pupil spending to academic performance. In 2017, the top 10 districts (earning 4.5 or five stars) spent less than $8,000 per pupil (excluding capital expenditures) and average ratings on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index were above 80 percent.

Georgia’s highest-spending district – Taliaferro County – spent more than $21,000 per pupil; scores averaged 69.6 percent. No. 2, Atlanta, spent $14,458 per pupil; scores averaged 66 percent. Of the 10 highest-spending districts, only one – Towns County, No. 10 – had test scores higher than 80 percent. No. 4, Clay County, spent nearly $14,000 per pupil but test scores averaged a dismal 50.3 percent.

Money helps, but motivation and innovation can inspire students to graduate then pursue a post-secondary education that optimizes their skills, opportunities and income. Education provides tools to climb out of poverty, overcome unstable home environments and poor role models, and help manage learning disabilities.

Students are unique; different families have different challenges and varying willingness and ability to deal with them. But opportunities and choices must exist for those willing and able to embrace them.

Such opportunities are expanding. Georgia legislators supported a 72 percent increase in the popular tuition tax credit scholarship program. Beginning in 2019, taxpayer donations to provide scholarships to private schools will be capped at $100 million.

GOAL, Georgia’s largest organization managing program donations, has awarded more than half its scholarships to families with incomes under $24,000 and 90 percent to families with incomes under $48,000. Nearly 45 percent of its scholarships went to minority recipients.

Of course, most children will continue in public schools. Many families are satisfied; others are trapped in public schools that fail to meet their child’s needs, whether academic or social.

Public school choice, in the form of successful, innovative public charter schools, helps struggling children thrive and graduate. When Atlanta’s first charter school, Drew Charter School, opened in 2001, fewer than 30 percent of students in the high-crime East Lake community graduated from high school. Last year, in the first graduating class, 82 percent of seniors enrolled in college. This year, Drew’s entire second graduating class is college-bound, fueled by $9 million in scholarships.

Atlanta’s charter-school students are outperforming their traditional public-school peers in the National Assessment of Education Progress. In 2017, the district’s charter eighth-graders scored 12 points higher on reading and 17 points above traditional students in mathematics. Fourth-grade scores were similar.

African-American charter eighth-graders scored 22 points on average above their traditional peers and 17 points higher in reading; charter fourth-graders scored 22 points higher in reading and 18 points higher in math.

A new study by Georgia State University finds attending a Georgia start-up charter high school increases the likelihood of graduation by four percentage points. Those graduates are six percent likelier to enroll in college, eight percent more likely to persist in college and two percent more likely to graduate.

The study is significant: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that college graduates earn, on average, 36 percent more per week than high school graduates.

For those not academia-bound, Georgia’s college and career academies partner with local industries and colleges so students graduate school with a technical certificate and jobs with local companies. It’s clear: Welcome greater choice, and Georgia will welcome more graduates.

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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