By Benita M. Dodd
Given the state’s progress since Georgia’s first charter school was approved 20 years ago, it would seem unnecessary to have to remind policymakers and parents of the importance of choices in education.
With the turnover under the Gold Dome, however, policymakers risk losing the lessons learned – the hard-won institutional knowledge – that reinforce the need for choice for Georgia’s families. In November’s elections, Democrats took 14 seats held by Republican legislators, shrinking the GOP majority. Republicans picked up three, giving the Democrats a net gain of 11.
Those numbers, of course, are not as important as the fact there are more novice legislators and, with the antagonism toward choice displayed by many Democrats, likely more voices of opposition.
Yet there are at least five good reasons to embrace – and expand – choices in Georgians’ education.
First, not all children are alike. Not even in a family, let alone in a classroom. Any particular education model has some children excelling and bored, some thriving, some surviving and some failing. Children learn differently, at different paces and with different needs. When families find their students unable to learn one way, they should have options.
Second, a child’s education should not be defined by his or her ZIP Code. Families of means are able to move to a “good” school district or zone if their school is inadequate or if their children have problems learning. Wealthier families can enroll their children in private school. Some even move to popular school districts before their babies are born to ensure a place in a prized public school. Low-income families whose children struggle should be able to choose beyond neighborhood boundaries to meet their needs or advance their academic performance.
Third, sometimes the education is adequate but the environment is not. A child intimidated in crowds or being bullied may need to feel more secure to learn; parents may prefer a religious component.
Fourth, technology has advanced to the extent that disruptive innovation is changing how children are taught. Public education is often staid, with top-down regulations, curriculum and pedagogic methods that prohibit school and teacher innovation or experimentation. While the goal is not experimentation with children but providing a quality education that prepares them for life, families should not be deprived of flexible options taking advantage of creative technology or education methods.
Fifth, education bureaucrats underestimate parents’ abilities to make smart decisions. Interestingly, when concerns were raised that many Americans were unable to make health care choices under Obamacare, government established “navigators” to help them. With federal funds for navigators shrinking, the nonprofit sector is taking on the responsibility. That need is being met in education by organizations such as Greatschools.org.
Competition can be a rising tide that lifts all boats; schools are reluctant to lose students to “better” institutions. When parents are allowed to “shop” for their child’s education with the money following the child, the competition is likely – eventually – to promote price competition, too. Choice carried out to the fullest extent allows parents to take responsibility for their child’s education and education dollars to choose the best possible education or education model that meets their child’s needs.
School districts that argue choice is “taking money away from public education” exaggerate. It’s worth noting that public charter schools are not only given less money than traditional schools, they are (unfairly) expected to be more innovative with that smaller pot. Meanwhile, vouchers and education savings accounts always provide parents with less money than what is allocated for a child in a public school district.
When opponents criticized the State Charter School Commission as “usurping local control” in districts that refused to allow charters, they forgot one thing: The ultimate local control is a knowledgeable parent. Parents deserve the opportunity to choose. Whose money is it anyway? And why would any sensible parent want to leave a school that meets a child’s needs?
National School Choice Week is Jan. 20-26. As Georgia joins thousands of celebrations around the nation, the goal under the Gold Dome should be to reinvigorate choice, empower more parents and enhance options so that more of Georgia’s children have access to a quality education that meets their needs.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit 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 views 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 (December 14, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.