from the ajc.
Check out other states: Program is no magic passport to academic betterment
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/10/08
Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson advocates a destroy-the-town-to-save-it approach to public education in Georgia.
In his push for universal vouchers, the Savannah Republican maintains that diverting students from public classrooms into private ones — and diverting tax dollars in the same direction — will somehow mysteriously improve public schools.
Voucher experiments in other states don’t support that conclusion. To the contrary, research has found that vouchers improve neither the academic performance of the students who use them nor the public schools they leave behind.
But this isn’t about data, it’s about politics. Citing poll results that allegedly show Georgians want vouchers, Johnson is using the issue to drive his likely campaign to become the state’s next lieutenant governor. “We cannot afford to weaken the system anymore,” he said in a recent speech. “We cannot afford to wait any longer. We need to start from the beginning with a new vision.”
Johnson does paint a pretty picture of vouchers and what they can supposedly accomplish. For example, he contends that vouchers empower families to send their children to the private school of their choice.
That hasn’t been the experience elsewhere, and anyone familiar with the top private schools in metro Atlanta knows that it’s unlikely to be the case here. In reality, parents and students don’t choose the school they want; the schools choose the parents and children they want. Generally, they choose the children who are easiest to educate and leave the rest for the public schools to handle.
In addition, a voucher will never cover the full price of the best schools, which cost as much as $15,000 a year. Poorer children will be limited to second- and third-tier schools and will be worse off than now.
Under Johnson’s vision, parents could tap tax dollars to send their kids to religious schools. While some Georgians may accept tax dollars being spent on Christian schools, they’d also have to accept that tax dollars could end up going to schools operated by Muslim extremists or cult leaders such as polygamist Warren Jeffs.
Although vouchers have been proposed in various forms for decades, much of the public has remained skeptical because in most cases voucher-backed private schools have proved no better and in some cases worse than public schools.
For example, the U.S. Department of Education — which under Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has become openly pro-voucher — reluctantly conceded earlier this summer that a federal voucher initiative in Washington, D.C., has not resulted in significant improvement in student achievement. Released in June, the Education Department report stated that voucher students fared no better on standardized math and reading tests for the second year in a row than public school peers.
Those findings are not unique. In February, the School Choice Demonstration Project based at the University of Arkansas issued the first in a series of reports on Milwaukee’s longstanding voucher program, concluding that there was little difference in academic achievements between voucher recipients enrolled in private schools and their public school counterparts.
These studies and others impugning vouchers don’t deter Johnson and company, who are now touting a telephone poll of Georgia voters claiming that 68 percent believe all children in public schools should be able to obtain vouchers.
Those numbers contradict the results of actual elections in other states, including some as conservative as Georgia. Voters have rebuffed vouchers in 11 states, and in Michigan, Colorado and California, they have done so twice. In 2000, both California and Michigan residents voted “no” to vouchers by a margin of more than two to one.
In 2007, the Utah Legislature enacted a statewide universal voucher program only to have voters repeal it nine months later by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. The Utah program would have given any family tax dollars to cover private tuition, regardless of household income or whether the public school was good or bad.
In his quest for vouchers, Johnson claims Georgia has tried everything to boost student achievement and nothing’s worked. That’s false. As a state, Georgia has either backed away from or never tried many reforms, including smaller class and school size, year-round classes and extended days.
Nor has the state tackled teacher quality. Yet repeated research suggests that teacher effectiveness is a far more important factor in student achievement than per-pupil expenditures, ethnic makeup or economic background.
Georgia also continues to waste money awarding sizable raises every time a teacher gets a master’s degree, even if the diploma has no relevance to the teacher’s content area. Because of this idiotic policy, Georgia teachers are obtaining an inordinate number of quickie degrees from diploma mills.
Georgia possesses a long and unfortunate history of undervaluing education, and the state and its people are belatedly recognizing that it can no longer entice industry with cheap labor and cheap land. That has left Georgia playing catch-up with states that understood earlier that an educated work force is the secret to 21st-century prosperity.
States with the highest levels of academic achievement — Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut and North Carolina, among others — aren’t doing it through vouchers. They’re bringing in better teachers, targeting resources and reforming schools as a whole.
Georgia could do those things as well, if there was the political will.