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Opinion: If governor wants to revolutionize Atlanta and DeKalb schools, enable kids to escape them

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

Today, he responds to several AJC news stories on proposed legislation to rein in school spending, reforms in Atlanta Public Schools and the governor's education agenda.

By Glenn Delk

Gov. Nathan Deal has called for an “education revolution” in Georgia.  Given the attitudes expressed in recent stories by supporters of the current monopoly known as government-run schools, Gov. Deal needs to create a new education market by passing legislation which a) gives all parents the right and economic means to choose among traditional public, public charter and private schools, and b) gives public and charter school teachers the same control enjoyed by their private school counterparts over their profession.

The first article, about a resolution before the Cobb Board of Education which would condition a student’s ability to participate in extracurricular activities on mandatory parental participation in school activities, is a natural extension of the belief that traditional school board members have absolute power to set tax rates, to determine attendance zones, and to punish students if parents don’t act as the school board sees fit.

In the second article, Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen tells state lawmakers; “Stop taking any more money from Atlanta Public Schools.”

According to Dr. Carstarphen, referring to a potential reduction in tax revenue: "…It was like $30 or $50 million — if both of those things happen, we might as well go home…”  However, she ignores the fact APS is effectively operating a monopoly where she and the Board of Education have the absolute power to spend nearly $14,000 per student or $682 million of taxpayers’ money annually, according to its 2015-2016 budget.

Given that level of spending, a first grader in today’s APS will have nearly $170,000 of tax dollars spent on his/her education by the time of graduation, to deliver academic results which now place 60 percent of APS schools at risk of state takeover due to poor academic performance, as evidenced by the recent Georgia Milestones results which disclosed that seven out of ten APS high school students are not be proficient in literature, geometry, biology, algebra and U.S. History; 95 of 100 APS students are not proficient in physical science.

Even Dr.  Carstarphen, at a public meeting on Oct,1, 2015, admitted APS was “effectively broken.” Despite her admission, she announced Thursday her administration would close or merge some schools, allow charters to run some APS schools, and retain her monopoly control over the future of 49,000 students.

A better solution, in light of a broken system delivering abysmal academic results, would be to give the parents of those students, most of whom are low-income minority students, the same ability as wealthier parents to choose APS, or use the $14,000 per student for tuition at a private school.

Finally, the AJC reported some state legislators publicly oppose a bill to reduce the ability of the DeKalb Board of Education to assess taxes above the constitutional limit on millage rates. Once again, supporters of the current public school monopoly believe the only answer is for the government to have the absolute power to spend more money on the current monopoly.

Given these attitudes, the only way Gov. Deal can start an education revolution before he leaves office is pass legislation which frees teachers and parents from the current monopoly. He should start by using APS and DeKalb County schools as pilot programs; those two systems have nearly 150,000 students enrolled, spending over $1.5 billion of taxpayer funds annually.

The governor should allow parents of the 150,000 students in Atlanta and DeKalb to voluntarily opt-out of the current monopoly by receiving an education savings account evidenced by a debit card, pre-loaded with $7500 per student annually.  Parents could use the cards to choose the best education for each child, whether at a private, out-of-district public, or charter school. Any funds not spent in one year could be carried forward as savings for college.

In addition to giving all parents the freedom and economic means to choose the best school for every child, the governor should also give those teachers who wish to leave the current monopoly, the power to control their professions by allowing them to self-regulate, just as lawyers and doctors do.  In other words, teachers in the new system would be free to determine the requirements for teachers, to set their own salaries, and to form their own schools to serve the needs of each student.

If these two things happened, Gov. Deal would make Georgia unique in the nation, breaking the current government monopoly in public education, taking away from bureaucrats and politicians control of the money and teaching profession.   If Gov. Deal truly wants to revolutionize education in Georgia, he will take these two simple steps, effectively making parents “owners” of their child’s education, and teachers “owners” of their own schools.

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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.