Equal Opportunity for All Through Educational Freedom - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Equal Opportunity for All Through Educational Freedom

Economist Stephen Moore, in a May 1, 2015 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, “President Obama, Are You Listening,” raised this question: “The scenes of Baltimore set ablaze this week have many Americans thinking: What can be done to rescue families trapped in an inner-city culture of violence, despair and joblessness?” His answer should lead us to start a grass-roots movement to convince political leaders in the state capitals and the U.S. capital to offer all parents, not just the wealthy, equal opportunity through educational freedom. How? Follow Mr. Moore’s advice:

Republicans should seize this issue. And when unions mobilize to kill school choice, the GOP should fight side by side with these inspiring students and parents to expand it across the country. The Education Department’s spending for K-12 education will soon reach $50 billion. How about a GOP plan that would take that money from the bureaucracy and distribute five million vouchers of $10,000 each to the lowest-income Americans—like those who live in Baltimore?

I propose that Georgia lead the country, in a positive way in education for once, by becoming the first state to implement Mr. Moore’s advice on a wide scale, ultimately leading a national, grass-roots effort. Atlanta, the birthplace of the civil rights movement, has unfortunately become the poster child for failed government-led efforts to improve the plight of the poor. In fact, today, the City of Atlanta may well be the worst place for someone born poor to achieve the American Dream and fulfill Dr. King’s vision. According to some reports, Atlanta is the most “immobile” city in the entire country; someone born poor in Atlanta has a 4% chance of escaping poverty, with perhaps the main barrier being the dismal educational choices provided Atlanta’s low-income black students.

However, Atlanta can once again become the civil rights capital of the country by pulling together a coalition of the willing—conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, Independent, rich, middle-class, poor, white, black, and Hispanic—to develop and operate a campaign to convince Governor Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly, during the 2016 session, to pass an unlimited Education Savings Account, a variation on Mr. Moore’s idea. While I prefer the term “Education Freedom Accounts,” whatever it’s called, the idea is very simple:

  • The state of Georgia spends $8 billion annually on K-12 education, with local districts also spending $8 billion, and the federal government spending $1 billion in Georgia.
  • Effective July 1, 2016, any parent who wishes to establish an EFA can elect to do so, placing up to $8000 per student into a tax-free account, to be used for educational purposes. Any funds not spent in one year can be carried over and used to pay for college.
  • The annual cap on EFA’s will be the total amount allocated by the General Assembly as the state’s share of K-12 education spending. If current spending were used, then up to 1 million students could receive $8000 annually in their own EFA.
  • The program would be open to all students whether or not they are currently attending private schools. If we assume that 10% of Georgia’s students, or @150,000, are currently attending private school, then 850,000 current public school students could use the accounts, leaving 750,000 to attend district-run schools, which would still have $8 billion to spend.
  • Finally, Gov. Deal should immediately petition President Obama to issue a waiver allowing the $1 billion spent by the federal government on low-income students in Georgia, to be split into 100,000 EFAs of $10,000 each, open only to the poorest students in the state.
  • When fully effective, without raising spending by a dollar, Georgia would lead the entire country, if not the world, in educational freedom and equity with:
  1. Up to 100,000 of the poorest students receiving $10,000 from the federal government would instantly have the financial means to choose the best educational option, whether private, charter, or out-of-district traditioinal public schools.
  2. Up to 850,000 of current public school students receiving $8000 each from the State of Georgia to choose the best option for them.
  3. Up to 150,000 current private school students receiving $8000 each from the State of Georgia to assist in paying tuition.
  4. Up to 750,000 current public school students would continue to attend district-run public schools who receive @$10,500 per student from local property taxes, or $2500 more than all but the poorest students in Georgia.

What would be the impact of such a system of funding on Georgia? First, families would no longer have their child’s future determined by their zip code or income level. Second, instead of a governmental monopoly controlled from the top down, a true market would develop. Instantly, Georgia would become the largest market for K-12 education in the world, with $9 billion available annually to attract the best school operators in the world. Third, Georgia would become the Silicon Valley of education, attracting the best and brightest to open new and innovative schools in Georgia. Fourth, all parents, not just those can afford to buy a house in the right zip code, or pay private school tuition, would essentially “own” their child’s education. For the first time, parents would have an incentive to shop for the best education at the lowest cost since they can use any money not spent in a year on later years, including college. Finally, the momentum would build to make this the key issue in the 2016 presidential race. Neither party could afford to oppose this common-sense solution to the problem of income inequality; both would be compelled to support offering equal education opportunity and freedom to all and making Mr. Moore’s idea of 5 million vouchers or education freedom accounts for the poor a reality.

Some would argue this is a pipe-dream and will never happen. However, consider this—in 2016, Republicans in Georgia will control every state-wide office and have a two-thirds majority in both houses of the General Assembly. The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that the $8 billion the State spends on K-12 education is not a constitutional obligation, but is discretionary. If Democrats in Georgia, especially black Democrats oppose EFA’s, they will be committing political suicide.

Likewise, at the national level, how can Democrats oppose a simple concept such as taking the $50 billion the taxpayers spend on K-12 education, and give 5 million of the poorest Americans a debit card with $10,000 a year to spend on the best education for their children? I predict that, if the national Democrats oppose the idea, then Republicans win the White House in 2016, and keep control of Congress. As Mr. Moore suggested in his WSJ editorial, if President Obama and his Democratic colleagues won’t listen, surely, the new Republican president, and the new Republican-controlled Congress would.

Why am I in favor of this approach—putting control of public education money in the hands of parents, and letting them choose? Without parental control over money, the market for schools is severely limited, which means we’re missing out as a country on the positive effects of a market system for the 40-45 million students who don’t have real, meaningful choice. Right now, our system of spending $650 billion annually on public education creates a huge bureaucracy in which barely 60% of the funds make it to the classroom. In the current system, schools receive more money if they fail than if they succeed, while educators are taught not to take chances. Under a market system, those teachers and school leaders who succeed in providing a quality education can, if they wish, expand. Teachers can organize themselves as law firms do—into partnerships in which the better teachers make more than $100,000 annually. New schools can start quickly, without the bureaucratic inertia present in traditional districts, and even charters.

Another reason to support this narrow approach to “education reform” is that overwhelming majorities of Americans already support the concept. Consider the following polls:

  • A 2013 survey in New Hampshire showed that 96.8% of parents receiving scholarships from the state’s only scholarship organization were satisfied. 100% of parents of children who previously attend their local assigned district school were more satisfied with their chosen school.
  • A 2013 Friedman Foundation survey in Georgia found that 98.6% of Georgia Goal parents were very satisfied or satisfied.
  • A 2010 survey by the Florida Dept. of Education found that 95% of parents of children receiving tuition tax credit scholarships rated their school excellent or good.
  • A 2009 survey by the Friedman Foundation, measuring the satisfaction of parents to the schools their children were attending with scholarships vs. their previous public school, found:
  1. 80% were very satisfied with the academic progress of their children in the independent school, vs. 4% in the prior school.
  2. 80% were very satisfied with the individual attention their child was receiving vs. 43% in public schools.
  3. 76% were very satisfied with teacher quality in the independent schools vs. 7% in public schools.
  4. 76% were very satisfied with the responsiveness of independent schools to their child’s needs vs. 4% in public schools.
  5. 62% were very satisfied with student behavior in the independent schools vs. 3% in public schools.

According to the American Federation for Children, school choice in all forms is growing throughout the country as evidenced by these facts:

  • 39 private school choice programs have been enacted across the country.
  • Over $1.2 billion in voucher or tax credit funding was provided in 2013-14.
  • The newest choice programs, enacted in 2013, include:
  1. Alabama-tax credits.
  2. Mississippi-special ed scholarships.
  3. North Carolina-Opportunity Scholarships.
  4. Ohio-Income based scholarships.
  5. South Carolina-education credits for special needs.
  6. Wisconsin-parental choice.
  • During the 2013-14 school year, more than 300,000 children participated in private school choice programs across the country.

Why the recent surge in the choice movement—the anger on both left and right at the Common Core, standardized testing and federal mandates have made “local control” the buzzword in state legislatures. As Oklahoma State Rep. Jason Nelson said in introducing an ESA bill, “the ultimate local control is parental control.” Several states are considering significant expansions, or have already done so. Arizona has expanded eligibility to @230,000 students. Oklahoma is debating a bill to let all 675,000 students in the state use ESAs.

Another reason for the increased interest in ESAs is that the public is finally realizing just how unproductive, costly, and inefficient the current system of public education is. Despite all of the education establishment’s marketing and public relations, Americans are beginning to realize the establishment is lying to them about the quality of education. A national non-profit, Achieve, has just published a report “Proficient vs. Prepared” highlighting the disparities between the results on state tests and the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (“NAEP”) tests. Consider these gaps between what the states claim are the number of students who are proficient, and the NAEP results:

                       8TH GRADE READING                       8TH GRADE MATH

Georgia                 -65                                                         -53

Texas                     -59                                                        -48

Ohio                      -48                                                         -40

Louisiana               -42                                                        -43

South Carolina       -38                                                        -39

Mississippi            -37                                                         -46

Virginia                  -34                                                        -29

Florida                   -24                                                        -16

Alabama                 -23                                                          -9

North Carolina       -21                                                           -6

If private school operators engaged in this type of false advertising, they’d be thrown in jail.

What is it going to take to achieve this pipe-dream? A simple, powerful message—give all children an equal shot at the American Dream through educational freedom. The goal is to pass legislation at both the local and federal level that creates equal opportunity through education freedom accounts. To achieve the goal, a marketing and political campaign should be aimed first, at the 2016 session of the Georgia General assembly, and second at the 2016 presidential and congressional campaign. Significant funds will need to be raised from:

  • Supporters of the presidential candidates.
  • Businessmen known to support charters or school choice. 
  • Pro-school choice advocacy groups.
  • Silicon Valley supporters of school choice such as the group which just funded Altschool with $130 million.
  • Professional athletes and entertainers.
  • Ordinary citizens who care about the future of the country.

Fifty years ago, my home state of Georgia was one of the leaders of the Southern states opposing equal educational opportunities for blacks. Today, over 50% of Georgia’s 1.6 million public school students are low-income blacks or Hispanic. According to Gov. Deal, just 2 of 100 black or Hispanic 9th grade students in Georgia will ultimately receive a two or four year college degree, effectively denying 98% of those students a fair shot at the American Dream. It’s time for Georgia to lead the nation in providing equal opportunities for all children.

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