Opinion: If this school-choice bill won’t pass, what possibly could?

5:46 p.m Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 Opinion

School-choice proponents have honed their arguments in recent years, taking their opponents’ objections and, where possible, addressing them in the bills they propose. The evolution continues with the latest measure to appear under the Gold Dome.

Will it matter?

House Bill 482 by Rep. Wes Cantrell, R-Woodstock, is probably the most bulletproof piece of school-choice legislation Georgia has ever seen. The bill would create Educational Scholarship Accounts allowing parents to take the state funding allotted for their child and spend it outside the public k-12 system: for private-school tuition, homeschooling materials, tutoring or, ultimately, college expenses.

The latest version of the bill limits the initial size of the program to just 0.25 percent of all public-school students. It prioritizes students with special needs, students from low-income families, students who were adopted or who are in the foster-care system, students with an active-duty military parent stationed in Georgia, students who have been bullied. It imposes tight financial controls on the program, and some requirements on participating private schools. It requires participating students to take standardized tests annually, with the results reported to the state and their parents.

In short, it addresses every objection school-choice opponents have ever raised. Well, except for their objection to the very existence of school choice at all.

And there’s the rub. If Cantrell’s bill won’t pass muster, no school-choice bill ever will.

Opponents at a hearing Monday were left grasping for straws: The private-school teachers, they lamented, wouldn’t be required to have state certification (though they would need either a college degree or at least three years of education experience, and schools would have to report “the relevant credentials” of ESA students’ teachers to parents). And the students would be allowed to take nationally norm-referenced tests, not the state test (probably because private schools don’t necessarily adhere to the state’s guidelines for what to teach, and when).

They also added the usual boilerplate about public schools “losing money.” Of course, those schools also lose the expense of educating those students, while keeping the federal and local dollars sent to them (roughly half of their per-pupil revenue). It’s not as if they’re unaccustomed to juggling any financial impact of students transferring: Who among us doesn’t recall, as either a student or a parent, kids who left our school to move to another district or state? Adam Peshek of the Foundation for Excellence in Education told legislators Monday that all but 21 of Georgia’s 180 public school districts already deal with the same kind of annual turnover envisioned by Cantrell’s bill. Somehow, schools keep the lights on anyway.

But school-choice opponents aren’t the real folks left without cover here. That would be the lawmakers who hide behind the opponents’ excuses.

Cantrell’s bill left no I’s undotted or T’s uncrossed. Georgia Republicans’ constituents overwhelmingly support school choice. (Dirty little open secret: So do Georgia Democrats’ constituents.) If they won’t vote to give it to Georgians through Cantrell’s bill, how can we expect them ever to do it?