5 reasons for education optimism


Georgians marked National School Choice Week Jan. 24-30, a week of events highlighted by thousands of yellow “woobie” scarves and celebration of the innovations in education in Georgia.

Among the more than 16,000 events held around the nation was the Foundation’s Jan. 27 Leadership Breakfast, a panel discussion with legislators Hunter Hill and Mike Dudgeon and education innovator Mike Davis. The event was followed by a massive noon rally at the Georgia Capitol. Championing choice with one voice at the rally were Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, rapper Ludacris and an all-grown-up Keisha Knight Pulliam, who you may recall as “The Cosby Show’s” Rudy Huxtable.

All week, the enthusiasm for school choice was overwhelming in Georgia – as it should be. Some insist that what the state needs is more money for education. It’s worth noting, however, that Georgia’s K-12 spending per student already is higher than all but one of its neighboring states. The Foundation believes that innovation and choice should be in Georgia’s toolbox to educate with flexibility. If children in a family are rarely alike, consider the varying needs in an entire classroom of children.

Georgia is among the nation’s leaders in education options and, with a few more steps, the state could surge ahead. Even now, however, there are reasons for optimism. Here are five:

School choice: The state has laid the groundwork for successful education options. That includes several positive changes to Georgia’s charter school law; a constitutional amendment in support of viable charter schools; the creation of a voucher program for special-needs students and creation of a tuition tax credit scholarship program. During all this, Georgia also became a national leader in digital learning.

Higher standards and greater rigor: The state dramatically upgraded the rigor of its academic standards in 2004. Georgia went from some of the weakest standards in the nation to being ranked in the top 10 in both math and English language arts. The state has also shown more improvement than any other in the nation when it comes to academic rigor, according to a new study. Georgia moved from an “F” to an “A.” The state’s low standards gave students a false impression of their progress because students would pass state tests while failing the respected NAEP national test.

Opening doors through digital learning: Georgia’s digital learning policies are No. 6 in the nation, according to the latest report card from Digital Learning Now. It notes, “Georgia has implemented a path to personalized learning and continues to work to create a blended, yet personalized approach to learning for each student.”

The Georgia Department of Education’s Georgia Virtual School, a statewide, accredited program, offers free middle school and high school level courses in “a teacher led, virtual classroom environment.” With more than 100 course offerings, its Web site promises, “Your student’s options and opportunities are not limited by the school district in which you live or the school they attend.” One of Georgia’s fulltime virtual schools, the Georgia Cyber Academy, is the largest school in the nation, with more than 15,000 students from across the state.

Student achievement: Adjusting for the demographic factors that schools are unable to control, Georgia ranks 19th highest in the nation in academic achievement, according to an Urban Institute analysis. (An analysis of how Georgia compares based on unadjusted NAEP scores is available here.)

A head start on careers: Georgia high school students can take college level courses at one of the 22 colleges in the Technical College System of Georgia, earning credits toward their high school diploma and college degree at the same time. A record 12,252 students are participating in the state’s program, called Move On When Ready. That’s a whopping 39 percent increase over the last school year, thanks to legislative changes in the program. The program improves graduation rates, increases student learning and gives students a head start along their career path.

There are still steps to take to improve education for Georgia’s children, among them providing Education Savings Accounts and expanding tuition tax credit scholarships. The latter is long overdue for another increase: The $58 million cap in contributions was reached on the first business day of 2016, January 4. Happily, today when Georgians consider the state’s education landscape, the shining path to success is no longer obscured.

[Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]