Pass the Opportunity School District. Then, pass real school choice.

Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk has been urging greater school choice in Georgia for 25 years and has done legal work for charter schools, most of it pro bono.

In this piece, he defends and endorses the Opportunity School District and goes a step beyond: He wants Georgia to give parents $7,500 to spend anyway they see fit on their children's education.

By Glenn Delk

Gov. Nathan Deal has been the subject of an unrelenting attack from members of the Education Industrial Complex over his proposed Opportunity School District. School boards, representatives of the teacher's union, the superintendents’ association and the PTA have regurgitated every argument used to oppose any attempt to change the status quo.

Most recently, DeKalb Superintendent Steve Green resorted to an ad hominem attack upon the governor, calling him a “predatory politician," a “predator,” and a member of “a rapacious political system.”

Perhaps, Dr. Green stoops to personal attacks because he can’t defend his position with facts.  While claiming to have made great progress in DeKalb, he ignores the facts that less than 20 percent of his low-income black or Hispanic students scored at a proficient level on the 2014-2015 state tests in math and science, 77 of his schools, or over 50 percent, scored a D or F on the 2015 Georgia College and Career Ready Performance Index, only 29 schools, or less than 20 percent, scored an A or B, and less than 1 in 4 high school graduate in Georgia in 2015 was deemed “college ready” by the ACT.

Dr. Green and the Education Industrial Complex continue to ignore the clear language of Brown v. Board of Education decided more than six decades ago that: “…education is perhaps the most important function of state and local government…In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available on equal terms.”

I would argue Gov. Deal, far from acting like a predatory politician, is, in fact, urging Georgia to take real action to finally fulfill Brown’s promise of providing access to education on equal terms to all, not just those who have the financial means to buy a house in the right school district, or pay for private school. Today, the barrier to equal opportunity is no longer state-sponsored racial segregation, but rather state-sponsored economic segregation based on zip codes.

According to Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan: “…Right now, there exists an almost ironclad link between a child’s ZIP code and his/her chances of success.  Our education system traditionally thought of as the chief mechanism to address the opportunity gap, instead too often reflects and entrenches existing societal inequities."

Dr. Green and the rest of the Education Industrial Complex engage in personal attacks on the governor to obscure the reality that the fight over the OSD is really a fight over control of the $17 billion in tax dollars spent annually on K-12 education in Georgia. While claiming to support “local control” in education, Education Industrial Complex members are attempting to maintain their monopoly control over how those state, local and federal taxes are spent each year.

Voters need to ask themselves these question in deciding whether or not to approve the OSD:

What has the government monopoly known as public schools delivered in exchange for the money?

Consider these statistics used by Gov. Nathan Deal in a recent speech supporting the Opportunity School District:

  • Only 33 percent of entering 4th graders read at grade level.
  • Among 3rd to 8th grade students, 39 percent are proficient in English/language Arts, 40 percent in math, 37 percent in science, and 33 percent in social studies.
  • Our high school graduation rate is still less than 80 percent.
  • Only 9 percent of all 9th graders, and just 2 percent of minority students, ultimately achieve a two or four-year college degree within six years of high school.
  • College graduates, over their lifetimes, on average, will earn 68 percent more than peers with just a high school degree.
  • 70 percent of all prisoners in Georgia lack a high school degree.

All of the above statistics begin to describe why metro Atlanta ranks 48th of 50 major metro areas in terms of economic mobility.  A child born into poverty in Atlanta has a 4.5 percent chance of escaping poverty.

Since over 50 percent of the 1.6 million students in k-12 public schools are low-income students, without a dramatic improvement in academic achievement, those students will be consigned to a lifetime of failed expectations.

As Stanford Prof. Eric Hanushek has shown, improving school quality has a dramatic impact on a state’s economy. In December 2015, Hanushek published research which showed that if Georgia’s students raised their academic performance to equal the current No. 1 academic performer, Minnesota, Georgia’s gross domestic product would increase 600 percent.

Who benefits from the current monopoly?

Certainly not the 60 percent the 1.65 million students in Georgia’s K-12 public school system who qualify as low-income who can’t afford a house in the right school district or private school tuition. Those 1 million students, most of whom are Hispanic or African-American, are trapped in schools run by less than 2000 local school board members who have delivered such poor results.

The real beneficiaries of the state-sponsored monopoly are the members of the Education Industrial Complex, especially non-teaching staff and administrators.

According to a 2013 report by Kennesaw State researcher Ben Scafidi, between 1992 and 2009:

  • The number of students in Georgia’s public school system increased by 41 percent, while the number of staff members who were not teachers increased by 74 percent,
  • If the number of administrators in Georgia had merely increased as much as the increase in students, Georgia’s teachers would be earning $7,786 more annually; in fact, Gov. Deal recently gave a speech in which he accused the Education Industrial Complex of diverting money intended for teacher salaries to other uses.
  • If the increase in administrators and other non-teaching staff in Georgia had merely increased at the same rate as the increase in students, Georgia’s taxpayers would be saving over $900 million annually,
  • Nationwide, between 1950 and 2009, the number of teachers increased by 252 percent, while the number of administrators and other staff increased by 702 percent, or seven times more than the 96 percent increase in the number of students.

Dr. Green’s own editorial highlights the problem when he brags “we have 15,000 teachers and staff…”  In other words, given an enrollment of 100,000, DeKalb has an adult to student ratio of 6.6 to 1.

Is Gov. Deal’s OSD a viable solution?

While the OSD is a first step toward equal opportunity, and deserves voter approval, the real solution to the problem of unequal opportunity is giving all students an equal opportunity to a quality education by eliminating zip-code based assignment of students and funding of schools.

In addition to approving the OSD, Georgia’s voters should insist that Gov. Deal and the General Assembly provide all parents with the funds and the freedom to pursue equal educational opportunities that they, the parents and students, choose, without regard to zip code, or whether the provider is traditional public, public charter, or private.

How? By taking the $7.5 billion the state now spends annually on K-12 students and establish up to one million education savings accounts in the amount of $7,500 annually for each student to use at the school of their choice.

Georgia has led the nation in school choice at the pre-school and college level with the adoption of the HOPE Scholarship. A five-year-old in Georgia can qualify for lottery dollars to pay for preschool tuition at any public or private school, anywhere in the state, regardless of his or her zip code.

Likewise, an 18-year-old high school graduate can receive HOPE to pay for tuition at any public or private college in Georgia, again, without regard to zip code. However, kids who are ages 6-17, unless their parents can afford private school tuition, or to buy a house in a “good” school district, are consigned to public schools according to zip codes. What sense does that make?

On Nov. 8, Georgians should pass the OSD as a first step in making Georgia the first state to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity for all students.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.