Foundation’s Role Pivotal in Georgia’s Lessons in School Choice


By Benita M. Dodd

National School Choice Week is Jan. 23-29. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and was a pioneer in the push to expand education choices for all Georgia’s children, joins a dozen organizations at the state Capitol on Tuesday for a School Choice Celebration and Rally.

Long before the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grants, long before the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind law, the Foundation was championing the right of parents to have a greater say and choice in how best to educate their children. In 1991, when the Foundation was established, school choice became one of its first priorities. Its first major publication was, “Reach for the Stars: A Proposal for Education Reform in Georgia.”

“The remedy for true public school reform will be painful to the entrenched bureaucracy,” the Foundation warned. “What we need is to change the tests, cut the bureaucracy and create choice and competition among the schools.” Put another way, the Foundation promoted “three integral and inseparable concepts that will ‘free the teachers’ and ‘free the parents’ – Deregulation, School Autonomy and Parental Choice.”

Of the three, nothing levels the playing field and initiates competition for excellence as well as choice does. Preventing a family from seeking out the best education for their child is intolerable. Why force a child into a school simply based on where they live? Low-income families often can’t move into a better school district. Children have varying needs. Uniformity encourages mediocrity.

“Reach for the Stars” urged: “One of the guiding philosophies of this plan is that government funding for K-12 education should be targeted to the child – not to the school district. Each and every school-aged child will be entitled to public support for his or her education. Parents can use that child’s publicly funded ‘scholarship’ at any school where the child meets admission requirements. Exceptions would be to schools that fail to meet state performance standards, or private schools that choose not to participate.”

The Foundation championed site-based management and charter schools, which are public schools of choice that receive greater flexibility and independence than traditional public schools in exchange for a performance contract.

It took time, but policy-makers slowly implemented Foundation ideas. As Georgia struggled with academic achievement, charter schools took hold. Georgia’s charter school law was passed in 1993; Cobb County’s Addison Elementary became the state’s first charter school in 1995. Today, 135 charter schools and programs enroll about 4 percent of the state’s public school population. In a report released this week, the state Department of Education found that charter schools show slightly higher Adequate Yearly Progress than traditional schools and most charter schools performed better than their district as a whole.

Other milestones:

* 1996: The Foundation launches its vaunted Education Report Card for Parents.
* 2005: The Georgia Virtual School becomes the first state online school, offering courses to public, private and home-schooled students. Last year, 5,547 students took 8,923 courses. Online offerings are increasing in Georgia.
* 2007: Georgia establishes Special Needs Scholarships, taxpayer-funded scholarships for eligible special-needs students so parents could choose the public or private school that best served their needs. Now, 190 private schools and 2,550 students participate.
* 2007: The Charter Systems Act enables entire school districts to apply for charter status. A dozen systems have.
* 2007: Legislature implements funding for career academies. Today there are 21, linking high schools, technical colleges and universities and businesses to advance work skills.
* 2008: Creation of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a state-level, independent charter school authorizing entity.
* 2008: Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs) allow Georgia taxpayers to donate to an SSO of their choice and receive a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit.
* The Foundation was at the table in the 2000s to promote higher expectations and accountability as Georgia developed its lauded Georgia Performance Standards.

Choice and academic performance will improve further as Georgia takes greater advantage of digital learning opportunities and courts approve the funding following the child. The state hasn’t reached the stars over these 20 years, but it has come a long way. And it’s a journey the Foundation will continue to navigate.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, 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 (January 21, 2011). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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