Georgia gets students moving forward


While you were distracted by this year’s transportation funding or Opportunity School District debates – or possibly ignoring the Legislature entirely – Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and both parties in both chambers unanimously set a tiny pebble rolling from the top of the mountain known as Public Education.

That pebble may become an avalanche leading to an earthquake or, as we policy geeks like to say, a “Paradigm Shift.”

Fortunately, the tectonic plates crumbling are Irrelevance, Dropouts and Waste, and the new Himalayas rising will be named Relevance, Graduation and Productive Citizenship.

The context: For years, Georgia has ranked near the bottom of states in the quality of public education. Say what you will about the fairness or folly of the reporting; it’s there and it must be dealt with. Economic developers say the quality of the workforce is the No. 1 factor for employers choosing a location, and education is the No. 1 factor defining the workforce. A great education will lead to the best possible workforce.

High school graduation is the ultimate measure of success in K-12 education. Some years ago, our state decided to simplify how students earn a high school diploma by creating what has been described as a 4x4x4x3 rubric for required academic credits (four credits each in Language Arts, Math and Science, and three in Social Studies) – with very little flexibility or choice in these courses – and finally some flexibility in a comparatively small number of “elective credits.”

The unintentional but practical result of that policy was an elevation in the perceived importance of core academic credits – whether or not mastery of those subjects produces productive citizens – and a corresponding lowering of the priority on career and technical electives. A clear implication for students was that the purpose of a Georgia high school diploma was to get them into a four-year college.

Deal listened to employers who said that two-thirds of the jobs in our state and nation require a high school education and college training shy of a four-year degree. He focused state education law and policy on developing a strong economy and improving educational outcomes – not just graduating more students, but graduating them with the ability to be productive citizens in the real world.

Cagle, long a proponent of college and career academies, was an important ally. Senate Bills 2 and 132 followed the recommendations of a panel appointed by the Governor. Both education bills passed the House and Senate unanimously and the Governor signed the bills together into law on April 30.

These new amendments to the Move On When Ready (MOWR) Act will remove funding barriers for school systems and parents to enroll their high school students in college as early as 11th grade.

DEEP WEED ALERT: If you’re like most people, you’re thinking, “Hey, I thought high schools already offer college credit through very rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) Courses. Why do we need to emphasize ‘dual enrollment’ all of a sudden?”

If you’re still reading, you’re curious enough to learn this nugget of truth: School systems love AP courses because they are taught by high school instructors, so school systems get to keep all the state “per student” allotment money they earn by offering AP classes.

With the old version of “Move On When Ready,” high schools received zero dollars for high school students taking college classes taught by college instructors. Logically, the high schools had zero incentive to promote MOWR, and a mere fraction of most high school students in the state took advantage of a very good option – earning free college credit.

Another unfortunate fact about AP classes is that only about one fifth of Georgia students pass any given AP exam, and even fewer than that actually earn college credit from the college they choose to attend. By comparison, students passing a dual enrollment course in Georgia receive transferrable college credit 100 percent of the time.

MORE DEEP WEEDS: “Dual enrollment” and MOWR used to be different programs. For a time, high schools received full K-12 state funding for students taking courses at a technical college. Governor Perdue cut K-12 dual enrollment funding to nearly zero. Years later, Governor Deal restored the funds. As a result, the state’s high school dual enrollment trend looked like a wave at Malibu, and there are still high school counselors in Georgia who react like Dracula seeing the cross when dual enrollment is mentioned.

The new laws not only change and solidify the method by which school systems receive full funding for high school students in dual enrollment, they also eliminate all college costs for students and their parents. Further, they define with crystal clarity how students may graduate from high school by taking only dual enrollment college courses after 10th grade.

So NOW a 16-year-old entering 11th grade who wants to be a welder or a computer game designer or an English professor can finish high school by enrolling in a technical college or a University System of Georgia college or university, take two years of courses for FREE, and graduate from his or her home high school at age 18 with a two-year college degree or diploma chock full of transferrable college credits … and NO DEBT.

For those who want a job right out of high school, the new law is even better: A student enrolling in a technical college only has to earn two Technical Certificates of Credit (TCCs) and an industrial certification – all in the same field – to finish high school. That can be done in less than two years.

Bill Gates’ foundation discovered that 70 percent of high school dropouts leave school not because they are dumb but because they are bored.

Now Georgia has an answer for students: Get interested in a career, do well enough through 10th grade to get into college early, earn two years of transferrable college credit debt-free, and become employable by the age of 18. For students who have no real interest in sitting in class, taking notes and regurgitating those notes on tests, gone forever is the 4x4x4x3 requirement. Now it’s 2x2x2x2 + College.

The shaking you feel is caused by students running to their counselors’ offices and Georgia rocketing up the education ranking ladder.

[Russ Moore, who founded Seamless Education Associates and has helped start 18 college and career academy charter schools in Georgia, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.] © 2015 Georgia Public Policy Foundation