It takes a lot to make veteran lawmakers stop in their tracks and stare at you blankly, their eyes silently questioning if they could have possibly heard you correctly. But I’ve had it happen to me several times in the waning days of this legislative session.
I’ve gotten those looks from lawmakers who asked me why some schools in their districts appear to have failing scores on the state’s grading scale, but do not appear to be among the lowest-performing 25% of schools – the threshold for their students to qualify for Georgia’s proposed Promise Scholarship Accounts.
“That’s because,” I explained to each of them, “not all schools with an F grade are in the bottom 25%.
“More than half of Georgia’s public schools would get a failing grade on a standard A-F grading scale.”
That’s when their jaws dropped.
It’s a staggering figure, one exacerbated by a pandemic – and the decisions made by school leaders during it – which wiped out years’ worth of academic gains.
But it is the cold, depressing truth.
What I mean is that, using a threshold of 60% proficiency on the “content mastery” portion of statewide assessments last spring, well over half of schools fell short of the mark.
That’s a dramatic change from the last pre-pandemic year, 2019, when the proportion was closer to 35%. Indeed, the ranks of schools with F-level content mastery grew by about half between those three years.
The state reports such information under the heading of “accountability,” but that’s not quite the right word. “Transparency” is more like it. The difference between these concepts speaks to the debate during this legislative session about giving more educational options to Georgia’s families.
The vast majority of families in these low-performing schools lack the means to move to a better public school district or choose a private school – or else many of them already would have done so. Public charter schools have become a more prevalent lifeline in many of these areas, but they don’t exist everywhere and typically are oversubscribed.
That’s why having an option like the proposed Promise Scholarship Accounts, which would provide $6,500 per year for those who leave a public school to pursue a different education, is so important. Here’s how one of the champions of this idea, Speaker Pro Tempore Jan Jones, put it during a hearing on the bill that would establish this new option.
“Transparency’s different from accountability,” Jones, a Republican from Milton, said March 20. “I knew how the schools were performing on standardized tests … and how many guns or fights there were in the school.
“But I never saw a teacher or a principal get fired because the school wasn’t doing well, and it wasn’t like there was an accountability (measure available to) the parent that I could make a different choice.”
So what does accountability really require of us? Jones continued in that vein:
“Accountability to me means the opportunity to make a decision. With regard to (accountability for) the private schools … the buck stops with the parent. The parent could make a decision to go to a different private school, or go back to the public school.”
Ultimately, that level of accountability exists only in some parts of Georgia. In other places, families are left with a punchless “transparency” that lets them know just how bad things are going – but doesn’t empower them to make a decision.
In so many other aspects of life – from leadership training to descriptions of how the members of successful sports teams bring out the best in one another – true “accountability” is a ubiquitous buzzword. It may or may not look like the loss of a job for those who work at schools, but there must be a consequence of some kind for not living up to expectations. Experience with similar programs in other parts of the country demonstrates that avoiding such consequences is a powerful motivator.
Empowering families to make a decision is exactly the kind of consequence we need to introduce on a broader scale in Georgia.