There was a time when Georgia was considered a national leader in education reform that empowered students and parents. That time, alas, is gone with the wind — the wind of politicians who talk a good game on school choice while sitting idly and watching other states blow past us.
Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — these states are moving forward while we stand still.
“If Georgia does not have a fierce sense of urgency today, this I think will be Georgia’s defining moment,” said Leslie Hiner, vice president of state relations at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. “Either this is that time when Georgia goes big and bold and accepts no excuses for excellence for your kids, or not.”
Less than a decade ago, it was just the opposite. Hiner was a top legislative aide in Indiana when Mitch Daniels was first elected governor in 2004. That same year, Georgia Republicans took full control of our statehouse and put school choice on the agenda.
“We were so impressed by what we saw coming immediately out of Georgia that we really paid attention, and we made phone calls down to Georgia … we actually shared ideas back and forth on education reform and on a number of issues,” Hiner told me by phone this week. “And it really just seemed everybody was highly motivated in Georgia at that time.”
The difference, she said, is that Indiana considered that initial flurry of activity just a first step. Georgia has rested on our laurels.
Efforts to expand school choice sputtered during the last two years. The Georgia Supreme Court threw out the state’s strongest charter schools law (on a dubious reading of the law and history, I might add). School accountability measures haven’t gotten off the ground.
Of the states forging ahead, Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee are of particular concern. They are our neighbors, and our competitors for jobs. Hiner said her experience in Indiana is that business decision makers pay attention to education reforms.
“They understand that everyone’s vested in [Indiana’s] educational success, that people aren’t just talking, people are taking action,” she said, “and if you [as a business] want to bring your time, talents and money to a state, you want to go to a state where people are vested in their own success.”
She added, “That’s what was happening in Georgia.”
That’s “was,” not “is.”
While Indiana has been among the national leaders in student-centered educational reform, Florida is the model that some activists are holding up for Georgia. And with good reason. Florida’s series of reforms, begun in earnest in 1999 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, have produced spectacular results.
In 1998, Georgia rated ahead of Florida on a national test of reading skills for fourth-graders — a key metric, because most learning from the fourth grade onward depends on a child’s literacy.
By 2009, not only had fourth-graders in Georgia fallen behind their counterparts in Florida, but low-income students in Florida almost equaled the average score for all Georgia students. It’s a shocking development. Not only do low-income students typically fare worse than the average on such exams, but the gap between Georgia students and low-income Florida students was still large nine years ago.
That outcome contradicts the frequent argument that school choice favors the wealthy. So do the outcomes for Florida’s minorities. Hispanic fourth-graders in Florida, for example, score better in reading than the average for all students in 31 states.
In Florida, the gains have been largest for those who were furthest behind.
Florida has used some of the same policy tools as Georgia: a tuition tax credit scholarship (albeit with more transparency than ours), vouchers for special-needs students, virtual education and charter schools.
But, like Indiana, Florida hasn’t been content simply to pass legislation. It has tightened standards and expanded the programs that work best. More than 210,000 Florida children benefited from choice measures in 2010-11, a 57 percent increase from just four years earlier.
Georgia has had enough of “was.” Let’s get back to “is.”
– By Kyle Wingfield