By Benita M. Dodd
It’s no secret that a 2017 legislative session begun with a smorgasbord of meaningful education reforms disintegrated into crumbs for Georgia families struggling to find viable alternatives when public schools fail to meet their children’s needs.
This week, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed into law some education legislation that survived anti-choice sentiment under the Gold Dome.
Last year, voters defeated a constitutional amendment for a statewide “Opportunity School District” covering Georgia’s chronically failing schools. It fell victim to a well-funded opposition campaign. Foes themed their opposition around Georgians’ fierce loyalty to local control, claiming it would take money and control from the local school board and superintendent. Lost in the kerfuffle, unfortunately, was that providing parental choice is ultimate local control.
Legislators responded this year with more timid “collaboration” legislation, signed Thursday by the governor, providing a “chief turnaround officer” for low-performing public schools and a “multiyear, multifaceted turnaround plan to assist them.” The chief turnaround officer will report to the state Board of Education.
Turnaround-eligible schools are defined as the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, based on federal, not state, criteria – an interesting about-face, given last year’s “local control” mantra. These schools get three years to show improvement under the collaborative turnaround plan before the state can implement one or more of nine measures, including conversion to a state charter or special school, replacing any or all personnel and allowing parents to place children in another school.
No “for-profit” companies may run the schools taken over, although it’s a mystery how public schools can be hurt if a profit motive improves efficiencies and “customer” (student) service, as well as a competitive product, as in every successful American business.
Charter schools legislation Governor Deal signed now codifies the only of the wide-ranging recommendations of the Governor’s’ 2015 Education Reform Commission implemented. Importantly, the State Board of Education may dispense much-needed grants of $100,000 to help fund charter school facilities. School boards must make unused facilities available to charter schools and assist with repairs.
The governor also signed into law the Public Education Innovation Fund Foundation, which provides dollar-for-dollar tax credits for up to $5 million in private donations, to be used for grants to public schools. (Credits max out at $1,000 for individuals, $2,500 for couples and $10,000 for corporations.)
It’s noble but folly. With few exceptions, taxpayers deserve accountability for what they already pay involuntarily. Further, more money for public schools is not the answer to improving academic performance. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation has published reports on how the state underreports school spending and Georgia’s school systems employ more non-teaching staff than teachers. Meanwhile, Florida and North Carolina spend less per student, with better academic outcomes.
Most unfortunately, two of the session’s most promising bills succumbed to anti-choice sentiment and lack of leadership.
On the last day of the session, legislators failed to reach agreement on raising the collective amount of contributions to the enormously successful tuition tax credit scholarship program. For the past three years, the $58 million cap on donations has been reached on Day 1, a clear sign of the citizens’ taste for choices in education.
There was little support for legislation to implement universal Education Savings Accounts, which operate much like Health Savings Accounts and would have given parents control over the state portion of their child’s education funds. Those funds could go to a state-approved menu of education services, among them private schools and tutors. Nevada and Arizona already have these; New Hampshire is set to approve similar legislation.
It’s true that most Georgians will continue to send their children to traditional public schools, no matter how many options. Even so, all parents – not just the wealthy – deserve the ability to consider options, whether public, private or homeschooling, online, bricks-and-mortar or blended. Parents understand children are different, with varying needs. This legislative session, lawmakers chose for parents. Unfortunately, they chose to lag in innovation and restrict choice and the opportunity to choose.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 28, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.