Last week was National School Choice Week. On January 25th, Georgians gathered at the Georgia State Capitol for a School Choice Celebration and Rally. Parents and school choice advocates came out to celebrate new options in education here in Georgia as well as to call for more progress in school choice options.
School choice has been in the news more recently thanks to the efforts of advocates, lawmakers, and parents to push for better options in education. When charter schools hold a lottery to determine which students will be lucky enough to attend, the crowds are huge and emotional. The scenes of desperate parents with their children, all of them in tears, are difficult to watch. It is even more difficult as a parent to send your child to a school where the dangers are just as great as the educational opportunity missed. As an education major in college, I was taught about the importance of deregulation and school choice. However, I always wondered why it wasn’t happening as was predicted? Why weren’t more students rushing into private schools with their vouchers and charter schools cropping up everywhere?
After viewing the documentary, The Cartel, I believe I have a much better understanding of the powerful roadblocks stalling the advancement of the cure to our public education woes. The pilot programs have been run, the research is definitive, and yet excuses for minuscule progress prevail. Lower incomes or bad neighborhoods should not prevent students from receiving the best educations.
There is an inordinate amount of skepticism and rancor surrounding the issue of school choice. Many people worry that school choice depletes public school funding or somehow favors private schools. Teachers’ unions often vehemently oppose school choice. However, with state budget shortfalls at record levels, and education budgets in states occupying the largest piece of a shrinking pie, the time to take a closer look at school choice is now.
A common misconception is that charter schools are private schools. To the contrary, charter schools are public schools. They operate under the auspices of the public education system and are accountable for academic results. They are open to all students and receive Title 1 and Special Education monies. They do not charge tuition. Because charter schools are rare and are often oversubscribed, lotteries are held to determine which students have the opportunity to attend.
Charter schools are one example of a school choice option, and they are unique in that they have more autonomy in choosing their own curriculum and strategies for achieving academic success. An example of a charter school curriculum choice would be the International Baccalaureate program. However, states that allow charter schools place caps on the number of such schools that can be authorized.
Tuition vouchers are another form of school choice. There are many advantages to vouchers because the money for education follows the student wherever they attend school rather than being squandered on bureaucratic or administrative costs. Very little educational spending stays in the classroom or even covers teachers’ salaries in our current public education system.
Most importantly, vouchers allow parents to choose the best education for a student regardless of their income or postal zip code. As the governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, has pointed out recently, school choice is a civil rights issue for those who cannot afford any other alternative to the government mandated school that matches their zip code.
Currently, Georgia has over 120 charter schools. The Georgia Charter Schools Association lists many types of charter schools:
- Startup Charter Schools – locally approved schools created by petitions brought forth by parents, organizations, or local public entities
- State Chartered Special Schools – schools that are state approved after local denial
- Commission Approved Charter Schools – schools authorized by the new Georgia State Charter Schools Commission
There are federal grants available to help cover startup costs. However, local and state approval of charter schools can be difficult to procure. Georgia’s new charter schools commission is an attempt to deal with the roadblocks typically encountered by those seeking authorization for a charter school. The commission is a state-level panel that serves as an independent alternative for charter school authorization.
Some education bureaucrats claim that school choice opportunities are detrimental because they drain resources away from public schools. However, charter schools are public schools. Additionally, tuition vouchers, or scholarships that follow the student, are only a source of competition to failing schools. Most parents would not trade a successful academic experience in a neighborhood school for a private school that is much further away. Then, as overpopulated, struggling schools shrink in student population, the drive of competition will force meaningful change and responsiveness to parent expectations.
Private schools are very responsive to parents who can simply remove their financial support and carry it elsewhere. Where there is a monopoly such as our current public school system, there is every disadvantage that typically accompanies it. The majority of public schools suffer from a lack of efficiency, responsiveness, and accountability. More educational funding is eaten up in administrative costs and simply never makes it into the classroom.
However, the anguish that so many parents and students feel about their schools is related to their constant fears about personal safety and violence, particularly in failing inner city schools. Students whose lives may be in danger and whose futures are being harmed by poor educations cannot in good conscience be told to wait any longer.
Throwing more money at the tragic problem of failing schools is not the solution. New Jersey spends more per pupil than any other state after New York. According to statistics from the documentary on New Jersey schools, The Cartel, the situation has spun completely out of control:
Spending can exceed $400,000 per classroom, and yet only 39 percent of the state’s eighth-graders are proficient or advanced readers, and only 40 percent of its eighth-graders are proficient or advanced in math. Of new high school graduates attending the state’s community colleges, nearly 80 percent require remediation. More than three quarters of New Jersey’s high schools have been warned that they may be placed on the state’s list of failing schools. And the problem is not one of inadequate funding: Some of the worst schools receive—and squander—the most money.
Looking beyond New Jersey yields even more disturbing facts about schools on a national level:
Only 35 percent of American high school seniors are proficient readers. Only 23 percent are proficient in math. Nationwide, only 74 percent of ninth graders graduate within four years—and that number drops to about 50 percent for black and Hispanic students. Twelve percent of American high schools are “dropout factories”—schools where less than 60 percent of freshmen even make it to their senior year. It comes as no surprise, then, that America lags far behind other developed countries when it comes to schooling: Among large industrialized countries, America ranks last in educational effectiveness—despite spending the most.
As for education in the state of Georgia, here are some National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) statistics from 2009 to consider:
66% of fourth graders are not proficient in math.
73% of eighth graders are not proficient in math.
71% of fourth graders are not proficient in reading.
73% of eighth graders are not proficient in reading. (NAEP 2009)
Additionally, Georgia ranks 48th in the country in graduation rates with only 57.8% of students graduating from high school.
School choice, whether it’s more charter schools or student vouchers, is an imperative more at this very moment than ever before.