Recently, in an editorial called “Private school doesn’t have to be only for the rich,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Kyle Wingfield argued that education savings accounts would enable poor and middle income students to afford private schools. Many academic studies support Mr. Wingfield’s view, as does the historical evidence from efforts such as the Rosenwald Rural Schools Initiative.
While Georgia’s constitution affords poor black and Hispanic parents the same protections its affords middle and upper income parents —the right of their children to a free and adequate education paid by the state — the most recent results from Georgia’s new, more rigorous assessments, the Milestone tests, clearly show that state and local school districts continue to violate this constitutional requirement. According to the Georgia Department of Education, at least six of every 10 students attending Georgia’s traditional public schools, at all grades, in every subject, are not proficient,despite the expenditure $17.5 billion in federal, state, and local taxes on those schools every year. Even the liberal editorial board of the New York Times, in an end-of year editorial entitled “The Counterfeit High School Diploma,” recognized the poor quality of education provided to U.S. students, as it chastised Congress’s passage of replacement legislation for No Child Left Behind:
But lawmakers ducked the most important problem; the fact that most states still have weak curriculums and graduation requirements that make high school diplomas useless and that leave graduates unprepared for college, the job market or even meeting entry requirements for the Army.
Supporters of the current government monopoly controlling public education, such as the New York Times, typically argue that poverty is the cause of our poor academic performance, and that taxpayers should spend more money on government schools. However, they ignore both academic research and historical evidence. For instance, a December 2015 report by the Fordham Foundation found:
… Still, poverty is an issue for virtually every nation on the planet. Where reform critics get it wrong is when they claim that America’s average scores are dragged down by the particularly poor performance of low-income students — or that advantaged students are doing just fine. That is objectively untrue. And its scores are not dragged down by an unusually high proportion of poor students, as measures of absolute poverty find the United States not to be an outlier at all.
America’s mediocre performance is remarkably consistent. Yes, our affluent students outperform our poor students. But they don’t outperform their peers overseas.
In other words, poverty alone is not the reason our government-run schools are churning out counterfeit diplomas. We also have the historical evidence from the Rosenwald Rural Schools Initiative that poverty and institutional racism can be overcome by offering poor minority students the choice and financial means to attend private, rather than government, schools. The Initiative was the result of collaboration in the early 1900s between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago businessman and philanthropist. As a 2011 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found in considering the impact of Rosenwald schools:
The Black-White gap in schooling among Southern-born men narrowed sharply between the World Wars. From 1914 to 1931, nearly 5000 schools were constructed as part of the Rosenwald Rural Schools Initiative…. we find that the Rosenwald program accounts for a sizeable portion of the educational gains of rural Southern blacks. We find significant effects on school attendance, literacy, years of schooling, cognitive test scores and Northern migration. The gains are highest in the most disadvantaged counties, suggesting that schooling treatments have the largest impact among those with limited access to education…
… At the turn of the 20th century, the educational opportunities available to rural Blacks living in the segregated American South were quite similar to what is available to the rural poor in many countries today: inadequate school buildings, classrooms and equipment. Moreover, White-run public institutions were not held accountable for these failures since Blacks lacked political representation…
However, for cohorts born during a relatively short period between the World Wars, the Southern racial education gap improved dramatically. Within a generation, the racial gap in the South declined to well under a year and was comparable to the size of the racial gap in the North…
Beginning with six schools near the Tuskegee Institute in 1913, the program grew to some 5,000 private schools in 15 states, capable of educating up to 25% of all black students in those states. Two hundred sixty private Rosenwald schools were built in Georgia during this period; the program ended when progress was made to end state-sponsored segregation.
Prior to the program’s end, the Chicago Federal Reserve’s study concluded that the Rosenwald Initiative explained 40% of the closing of the racial gap in academic performance during this period, adding:
Accounting for the full cost of building and maintaining the schools, we estimate that the additional human capital acquisition generated by the Rosenwald schools implies an internal real rate of return of about 7 to 9 percent…
Georgia’s low-income minority students need a 21st century version of the Rosenwald Initiative. Georgia’s General Assembly can give the 62% of Georgia public school students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch the financial resources, for the first time in our history, to exercise the same choices currently afforded those Georgians who can afford to either move to the right zip code, or pay for private school tuition. The General Assembly should, during the 2016 session, pass legislation to authorize “Education Freedom Accounts” (“EFA”), authorizing up to one million K-12 students to receive a debit card worth $7,500 per student, pre-loaded on the card to pay for educational expenses, including private school tuition or out of district public school tuition. By doing so, Georgia’s political leaders can give real hope to poor minority students of a fair chance to achieve the American Dream by learning from the efforts of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.