Weekly Column by PolicyBEST Executive Director Charlie Harper
When Georgians debate solutions to improve our education system, talk often devolves into ideology that closely aligns to a partisan divide. Some believe the solution is primarily one of money. There is no set of facts and figures that can’t justify a conclusion of “just spend more money and the problems will be taken care of”. Others believe that the problem is government itself, and believe that only the private market will turn around a large and entrenched bureaucratic ship.
Lost on those that are locked into talking points are the many varied solutions that Georgia has implemented in the last decade that address problems from many different angles. A closer inspection shows that Georgia is actually quite innovative in the education arena, with a commitment to improving the public education system in the state. Georgia has taken an “all of the above” approach.
Benchmarks were improved under the watch of former Governor Sonny Perdue and State School Superintendent Kathy Cox. Georgia Performance Standards were implemented, along with a new nationally recognized curriculum that was significantly more challenging than before. Cox’s legacy was one to increase expectations of Georgia’s students.
The Charter School movement has also been a cornerstone to demonstrate innovation and one to allow parents choice. Charter schools are public schools but organized to allow flexibility tailored to the needs of those that attend. Most have management models that place the principal as the primary decision maker, and eliminate much of the bureaucracy that is the cause of much consternation in traditional public schools.
Georgia has not ignored these issues of bureaucracy either. The state has a system that allows for school systems to become “charter districts” which allows for the local boards of education additional autonomy from state regulations in exchange for locally developed and implemented plans for innovation.
As such, local districts have an unprecedented opportunity to exhibit “local control”. With this autonomy comes additional responsibility and now, the expectation of accountability.
One year from now, Georgians will go to the polls and be asked if the state should be allowed to take over schools that are chronically failing. The constitutional amendment would create an “opportunity school district” that would be charged with improving student performance in schools that have consistently underperformed.
The plan is already showing progress. Districts with schools on a potential takeover list are putting additional resources and scrutiny on these schools to avoid state takeover. That’s exactly what the state wants. It’s also exactly what the students in these schools deserve.
Another alternative for students lies in Georgia’s experimental Student Scholarship Organizations. SSO’s allow tax deductions for a limited number of scholarships – i.e, vouchers – for students to transfer to private schools. This is one of the few examples where direct private alternatives are being used. Most of the focus is and remains within the public sector.
Looking ahead, Georgia is attempting to streamline the path from high school to college by expanding joint enrollment programs. This allows students to begin work for college credit directly from a college while still completing their high school diploma. It’s a more certain vehicle to college credit than traditional advanced placement courses which rely on the score of an end of year test for credit.
Individually none of the above programs represent a silver bullet. Taken together, they demonstrate a comprehensive approach to increase expectations, alternatives, and accountability.
Critics continue to argue that the system itself remains underfunded. This despite the fact that more than half of the discretionary budget growth since the great recession has been directed to K-12 education. Most point to the QBE funding model approved in the 1980’s which has itself never been fully funded.
This too is receiving attention. Governor Deal’s education reform funding committee is completing work on a new plan to match funding to student need in comparison with the district’s ability to fund that need from an existing tax base. The state’s role is to equalize that gap.
The opening bid for funding increase is expected to be more than an additional quarter of a billion dollars annual to fund Georgia’s public schools. History suggests that the politics of re-carving an existing pie will push that number higher. It will be one of the more interesting battles to watch as the coalitions involved will likely not be along traditional partisan or even geographic lines.
As the debate begins in earnest – and likely even after its conclusion – there will be those who will still rely in the tired refrain of “if only our education system was given more money”. What is lost on these but should not be lost on Georgia’s taxpayers is that “more” has been given and plans are being made to invest even more. A significant investment has also been made to ensure that tax dollars are being used to maximize the results of what is already the state’s largest slice of the budget.