Time To Move School Choice Beyond Slogans

By Charlie Harper, Executive Director

It’s National School Choice week across the country, and several organizations will make their presence felt at Georgia’s Capitol this week. Many will be patted on the heads and told by legislators and candidates how important school choice is to them. We’ve been hearing this for years. Lately, however, tangible action has been lacking.

School Choice was inextricably linked with the 2016 Opportunity School District plan, which had the potential to use charter school operators to take over failing schools. The amendment suffered defeat at the ballot box across the state.

The public’s rebuke of the plan reversed momentum to expand educational options that arguably peaked with the passage of the constitutional amendment creating the State Charter Schools Commission in 2012, despite OSD not offering real choice as a solution. Under the OSD plan, students would have still attended their assigned school based on where they lived.

It’s not like the public changed their mind on school choice over four years. Instead, the 2016 OSD failure should be compared to the 2012 regional T-SPLOST referendums which failed in most regions of the state. Voters weren’t saying there wasn’t a problem. They were asking for a better solution.

The problem with advancing initiatives in school choice these days lies in the polarized politics that infect so many issues. Democrats receive much of their national funding and grassroots support from national teachers’ unions and their state association affiliates. To these groups, choice is an anathema.

On the Republican side, too many leaders have fallen in love with the simplicity of their bumper sticker slogans. “Competition” alone will not fix the myriad of issues that plague our education system. As the director of a charter school, I can state unequivocally and with first-hand knowledge that the problems with traditional schools managed by a local board of education do not magically go away just because the word “charter” is added to an institution.

In theory, charter schools have more tools available to solve the challenges they face. The reality is that charter schools in Georgia receive a fraction of the funding of traditional schools in which to address the same challenges for each student, individually.

“Competition” implies the concept of fairness. State Commission Charter Schools, however, receive only the state funding equal to the five poorest districts in the state. Most of the students come from districts that spend many times more than this amount and yet achieve dubious results.

Charter schools are expected to do better, with much less. If they do not, they close.

There’s not an opponent of school choice that fails to make the point every chance they get that funding per student is an essential ingredient in the student’s chance for success. These same critics gleefully choke funding for alternative programs at every turn, wanting the revenue back under the standard one size fits all model without accountability for results.

Charter schools have no problem with accountability, but it’s time to give them the tools needed for success. It is past time to find an equitable funding formula for Georgia’s charter schools.

2018 is an election year. What happens next for Georgia’s students and the school choice movement will rely on who is nominated, and who is elected.

During the primaries – specifically the GOP primaries – candidates must outline their specific plans to take the school choice movement to the next level. This should include, at a minimum, plans to help charter schools to achieve funding parity with the districts their students come from, a funding model based on the student instead of the educators teaching them, and expanded use of Student Scholarship Organizations – specifically to give students in chronically failing schools more opportunity instead of more bureaucracy.

Georgia has made great strides in school choice during the last decade, but we’ve rested on our laurels for a couple of years. It’s time to get busy and ask tough questions of candidates to ensure that every Georgia student can find the right educational environment to unlock his or her unique potential.