Ask Georgians about education, and you’ll likely hear two things: It’s important to our future prosperity, and we’re lagging behind. They’re right about its importance. There is one area, however, in which Georgia doesn’t trail most other states when it comes to education:
Not what you expected? Join the club. But Georgia ranked 23rd in spending per pupil according to the latest data available for all states, the 2007-08 school year. Further analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests budget cuts since then have yet to push Georgia out of the top 30. We remain right around the middle.
Where we do lag behind is in the results we get for our money. Georgia ranks in the bottom third of states when it comes to proficiency in reading and math among fourth- and eighth-graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP.
The disparities show up all too plainly when one compares Georgia to the states with which we sometimes compete for jobs — states like Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas. It isn’t even close: We’re above average among that group for educational spending but last or next-to-last in each NAEP category.
In particular, we spend about 25 percent more per pupil than North Carolina. Yet, students there perform slightly better on the NAEP across the board.
Other measures tell a similarly sad tale. Of every 100 Georgia children who begin the ninth grade, just 54 will graduate high school. Just 40 will enroll in a college or technical school, and almost half of them won’t make it to a second year. Only nine — nine! — will graduate.
“Too many [high school graduates] are coming and they’re not prepared,” Dean Alford, a member of the Board of Regents, said at an event this week sponsored by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The state, he said, spends $254 million a year on college and technical students who don’t last until their sophomore year. (Alford also presented the statistics about ninth-graders, citing research by an organization called Complete College America.)
Rising revenues may mean the end of cuts to Georgia’s education budget. But Georgians ought to question whether it really makes sense to add more money to the same old educational model that’s produced those lackluster results.
A key to improving the system, rather than merely pouring more money into it, is restoring the state’s ability to approve charter schools. Charters are public schools, but they give parents and students options while allowing for more innovation — and accountability — than traditional public schools.
The experiences of charters like Fulton Science Academy and Ivy Preparatory Academy, denied contracts or extensions by local school boards despite their track records of academic success, suggests local boards like control too much to give them sole control over charter approvals.
Yet, because of an egregious ruling last spring by the Georgia Supreme Court, the state’s ability to approve charter schools on its own has been severely limited.
This week, Rep. Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton and the No. 2-ranking member of the state House, officially proposed an amendment to the state Constitution restoring the state’s power to approve charters. The House could vote on it as soon as next week, and it deserves to pass the Legislature this year and be put to a voter referendum in November.
It’s good policy and good politics: A new opinion poll commissioned by Americans for Prosperity, which supports charters, found Georgians overwhelmingly believe parents know what’s best for their children and should be able to use the state funds allocated for their children at the school of their choice.
Respondents also said overwhelmingly, to the tune of 71 percent support, that they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports school choice. A two-thirds vote is required in both the House and Senate to put the amendment on the ballot. You do the math.
We can’t afford for them not to take action, because we can’t afford more years of pouring more and more money into an educational system that produces diminishing returns. Again, you do the math.
– By Kyle Wingfield