If cigar-chomping Hannibal Smith of the ’80s TV series “The A-Team” was on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s school choice “team” today, he’d be repeating his legendary expression: “I love it when a plan comes together!”
That’s because the Foundation is seeing the results of its often-contentious, 15-year campaign for parental choice in Georgia education. A March statewide poll led by the Friedman Foundation was released this week, showing a majority of likely Georgia voters support educational vouchers. The executive summary of the survey, conducted by the research firm Strategic Vision, can be found at http://www.edspresso.com/GA%20Poll%20Summary.pdf.
The survey found that 59 percent of respondents favored a policy to provide school vouchers to special education students, while 20 percent had an unfavorable response. Asked about school vouchers in general, 58 percent of Georgians favored school vouchers while 22 percent were opposed. Most Georgians (53 percent vs. 29 percent) agree that school vouchers improve K-12 education by allowing parents the freedom to choose the best education for their child. Asked what appeals to them most about school choice and vouchers, 38 percent cited parents choosing the best school for their child and 21 percent cited better education and curriculum.
Asked their views on claims that private schools don’t serve disabled students, 54 percent of respondents said private schools do a better job of educating special-needs students and 8 percent said they do a worse job.
Remarkably, 59 percent said if it were up to them they would choose a private school or home school environment, while 27 percent said they would choose a public school environment.
And 82 percent said parents are better able to make educational choices than school administrators.
The support crosses regional and racial lines, with an overwhelming 70 percent support in middle Georgia for vouchers, 57 percent in metro Atlanta, 54 percent in north Georgia and 53 percent in south Georgia. And four times as many respondents said they would vote for a legislator who supports vouchers as they would be less likely (54 percent vs. 13 percent.)
While education reform, including school choice, has been a focal point for the market-oriented Georgia Public Policy Foundation since its establishment 15 years ago, the Foundation hasn’t merely sat on a high horse. Foundation experts got into the trenches and turned philosophy into reality, showing what choice can do and established a charter high school in the Atlanta Public Schools system.
Today, in only its third year of operation, Tech High — a math-, science- and technology-oriented school that cannot screen applicants except for district residency — is one of the top-scoring APS high schools. That score was achieved with a student population that is 97-percent minority and 75 percent free- and reduced lunches.
In March, the renowned Economist magazine profiled Tech High in an article, “Fixing Dixie’s Tricky Schools.”
“Tech High spends only two-thirds as much money, per pupil, as the Atlanta public schools. Yet its test scores are better than any in the inner city, and on a par with the average for Georgia.
“Why? ... Management is lean. Classes are disciplined, not least because teachers can threaten to send troublemakers back to the public schools they escaped from.”
The Economist added, “Charter schools such as Tech High typically cannot set up without permission from the educational hierarchy whose flaws they plan to expose.”
The process is arduous and lengthy in Georgia for obtaining approval to establish a charter school, which, it bears repeating, is a public school that contracts with a school system to provide certain results in exchange for greater flexibility (and fewer funds).
Arduous is acceptable, considering our children’s future is at stake. There are, however, opportunities to streamline the process and give Georgians a say in how their children are educated. Whether it comes in the form of a better-funded charter school, a charter district or a voucher program for special-needs children, educators have been put on alert that school choice is an idea whose time has come in Georgia.
As U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings addressed a Georgia Public Policy Foundation event on education reform in January, she told the Foundation, “I’m counting on reformers and pioneers like you to lead the way.”
In 15 years of policy over politics, we’ve brought education officials, policy-makers, legislators and Georgia’s parents and children a long way on education reform. And we’ve only just begun.