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Opinion: Governor challenges recovery district opponents to find better idea. Here's one - Education Olympics.

Glenn Delk is an Atlanta lawyer and long-time advocate for parental choice in education .

By Glenn Delk

Gov. Deal has challenged opponents of his proposed Recovery School District to come up with a better idea.

With all due respect to the governor, implementing the RSD would be Georgia doubling down on a proven federal failure, School Improvement Grants. 

The $6 billion program has not generated scalable outcomes and has been described by one expert as … ”the greatest failure in the 30+ years of the U.S. Department of Education.”

More specifically, many of the 141 schools on the list of failing Georgia schools have received millions in federal aid for years, administered by the state, with no discernible improvement.

Gov. Deal and his supporters cite the New Orleans RSD as proof of the validity of the concept, failing to acknowledge New Orleans is not an example of a successful state take-over of failing schools. Instead, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed the failing government-run school system, Louisiana authorized and funded all new charter schools, run by charter management organizations.

The New Orleans results show the merits of increasing parental choice and deregulation of public schools, not the benefits of turning schools over to a different set of bureaucrats.

As a long-time supporter of Gov. Deal’s efforts to expand parental choice in education, my better idea is to give our teachers and educators the freedom and incentive to achieve the equivalent of putting a man on the moon within a decade: Georgia’s students out-performing the world, using international standards, by 2025

Offer teachers, educators, charter schools, traditional districts, private schools, colleges and universities up to $1 million per school in start-up funds, to develop new schools and new school models serving all students. 2015 can mark the beginning of our quest to unleash innovation in education that would enable Georgia to realize its audacious dream.

The Path: Create an open competition, similar to the effort Billy Payne and the city of Atlanta encountered when seeking the bid for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. At the time, most thought Mr. Payne was crazy, but nearly three decades later, few can deny Mr. Payne’s dream has forever changed Atlanta.

In that vein, I’d like to propose a defining moment for education in the state of Georgia…an Education Olympics where we leverage the very principles that make this country great by challenging the public and private sector to strive for gold. Invite educators and visionaries with demonstrably effective or research-based school models to come to Georgia.

Clearly define the end goal, allow the entities to define the how, and parents the freedom to choose. The only requirement will be to operate as a charter school in Georgia—tuition free, no admission criteria, $7.500-$8,500 in per student funding, and publish an annual accountability report which shows how they spent the money and their students’ performance national and international tests. Give gold, silver and bronze medals, as well as cash bonuses and college scholarships to winning educators and students.

The Education Olympics represents another dream of possibility, much like hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. We know that American students can, and are, achieving at the highest levels internationally, when educators have the freedom and autonomy to hire the best teachers, who set high expectations for all students.

For instance, BASIS Education, started by two college professors in Arizona in 1998 with 55 students, has grown to serve over 13,500 students today, while spending less than $7,000 per student. As a public charter school, BASIS accepts all students, with no admission tests and no tuition.  

According to the 2014 results from the OECD, BASIS students already rank #1 in the world, outperforming students from Shanghai, Finland and Japan by large margins; in other words, if BASIS students constituted a country, they would win the gold medal

 Two fundamental reasons compel us to chase this dream: 

1. We have a moral obligation to make Jefferson’s dream that “all men are created equal” a reality. Today, many low-income minority students are denied equal education opportunities simply as a result of their zip code. Gov.Deal believes that, in order to compete in the 21st Century economy, at least 60 percent of Georgia’s 9th graders need a two or four year college degree; unfortunately, today, only 9 of 100 ninth grade students in Georgia ultimately get a two or four-year college degree; for minority students, the number is 2 of 100.

2. There is an economic imperative for the Education Olympics. If U.S. students improved to No. 1 in the world by 2050, the Gross Domestic Product of the U.S. would increase by a net present value of $14.7 trillion, while tax revenue would grow by $5.3 trillion, more than enough to fund the entire U.S. government for a year.

If we succeed in dramatically improving the academic performance of Georgia students by 2025, the consequences for Georgia and the country will be just as profound as the impact of Mr. Payne’s dream on Atlanta’s skyline.

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About the Author

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