To Improve Education Outcomes, Advocates Urge School Choice for All Students

Commentary by Allen B. West

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Rich Thompson, an Atlanta parent, is executive director of the Georgia Parent Teacher Organization. Allen West, a former Florida congressman and Atlanta native, is CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

The pair co-wrote this essay to mark the 2015 National School Choice Week, which begins Sunday.

This is the story of two young black students who attended challenging Georgia public schools not long after the civil rights movement. They both share ties to a small Georgia town.

One attended a public school in the Old Fourth Ward of Atlanta. At length, his parents saved enough money to transfer the older boy to a parochial school and, eventually, to Atlanta’s Marist School. He spent a lot of time at his granddad’s house in Cuthbert in southwest Georgia, where his father grew up.

The other young man attended public school in Cuthbert. His parents had few choices for his education other than the county’s one-and-only elementary, middle and high school. Instead, it was cradle-to-college mentoring by family members and a few dedicated teachers who set boundless expectations and devoted years of selfless service to help turn several rural geographical obstacles into our stepping-stones of success — graduating from a major four-year college or university.

Our two stories are no different from what young boys and girls experience in Georgia public schools today. One of us got the opportunity for school choice because our family could afford to leave; the other did not. By the grace of God, we both turned out successful and now have careers trying to help others.

But Georgia – like most states – still restricts the future of too many students because of family income. It happens because pupils are assigned to a public school based on their address. If we truly believe in freedom, we will provide educational access to all children. That opportunity will come only when this state embraces free-market competition to improve education. That means school choice for all students.

This week is National School Choice Week. Throughout the nation, there will be more than 10,000 events – including here in Georgia – celebrating the strides made in offering parents options for their children other than the school assigned to them by their local address.

School Choice Week notes all forms of choice parents desire, from charter schools to online learning, private school options, home schooling, magnet schools and public school choice. Moms and dads should be able to choose whatever educational setting works for their children.

School choice does produce results. Since 2010, there have been at least 16 academic studies on charter school performance. Fifteen studies found students in charter schools perform better than their peers in traditional public schools. Of the 12 empirical studies on private programs, 11 found school choice improves student outcomes.

Georgia opened the door toward school choice in recent years, but it is not enough. Voters adopted a charter school amendment in 2012 to help expand the number of charter schools, but the bureaucracy has once again resisted creating many new charters. There are lotteries and waiting lists.

We have a limited tax-credit scholarship program and a special-needs voucher program; both have more pupils wanting scholarships than there are scholarships available.

There are 1.7 million Georgia students attending public school. Only about 5 percent of the student population has school choice. About 42,000 pupils attend the state’s 80 independent charter schools, with 13,000 pupils on waiting lists. About 15,000 students use tax-credit scholarships for private schools. Another 3,416 students with disabilities utilize the state’s special-needs scholarship to attend a private school.

Demand will continue to exceed supply as parents seek more choice. A Luntz Global study in 2013 found 73 percent of Americans support school choice, and 64 percent of parents said that “if given the financial opportunity,” they would send one or all of their children to a different school.

Parents know what the political class has yet to recognize: Incremental change will not work. Give parents all forms of school choice, and let them decide what works for their child. School choice promotes better economic growth and increased opportunity and is in keeping with the promise of the American dream. It’s time for Georgia to take the lead and do more for all students.

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