Public reaction to eight Atlanta educators being sentenced to jail time has generated a separate controversy over whether the sentences are fair or excessive. I believe we should focus attention not on these adults, but on the truly injured parties — the students. The Atlanta cheating scandal is but a small part of a much larger scandal, the $600 billion spent annually in the U.S. by the governmental monopoly known as traditional public schools, which effectively cheats millions of students, especially low-income minority students, of an equal opportunity to a quality education.
The Atlanta indictment charged 35 individuals with participating in a scheme or conspiracy which extended up and down Atlanta Public Schools (APS), from secretaries to teachers, assistant principals, principals, testing coordinators, leaders of school resource teams. Led from the top by Dr. Beverly Hall, the alleged conspirators also obstructed justice, tampered with and intimidated witnesses, and committed other acts designed to continue the scheme, for the purposes of keeping their jobs and earning bonuses based on false results. The jury’s verdict essentially validated the indictment’s fundamental premise that educators and administrators responsible for operating Atlanta Public Schools ran the public school equivalent of the Gambino Mob.
Unfortunately, the United States has organized and operated public education for 100 years exactly as Dr. Hall ran APS, but for the cheating on standardized tests. At the federal, state, and local level, politicians micro-manage all $600 billion spent annually on public education, passing laws limiting public funding to government-run schools, restricting access to quality schools through zip codes, centrally controlling the curriculum, mandating that only “certified” teachers be hired, controlling how teachers are compensated, and above all else, requiring that standardized tests be given and centrally determined academic goals must be met. Much like the obstruction of justice charges in the Atlanta scandal, anyone who criticizes the monopoly is derided as racist, elitist, or out to destroy public education. Teachers’ unions, superintendents’ associations, school boards, much of the media, and colleges of education, all work together to convince taxpayers and politicians that the monopoly is doing a great job, with the only problem a lack of funding. The result of this silent national conspiracy is the “Academic Industrial Complex,” a Soviet-style centralized planning approach in which only those wealthy enough to afford a house in the right zip code, or private school tuition, have access to a quality education. In this respect, members of the education monopoly aren’t much different from leaders of the communist party in Soviet Russia, who, because of their power and position, were able to afford good food, good housing, and many other perks.
Schools are deemed “failing” if they fail to meet these Soviet-style goals, despite the fact these state tests do not accurately measure how well or poorly students are being educated. For example, while over 80 percent of Georgia’s students are deemed proficient on many state tests, national and international results expose the fact that, in Georgia, barely 20 percent of all students, and less than 10 percent of minority students, graduate from traditional public high schools ready for college or work without needing remediation.
Reacting to the increasing global competition for good jobs, almost every state, including Georgia, has defined a quality education to mean that students should graduate from high school, ready for college without needing remediation, with at least 60 percent ultimately obtaining a two or four year college degree in order to compete in today’s global economy. Since only 2 percent of the 850,000 minority students in Georgia’s public schools currently achieve the goal, Georgia’s version of the Academic Industrial Complex effectively cheats over 750,000 poor minority students of an equal opportunity to a quality education.
My answer to both the Atlanta and national “cheating” scandal would be to authorize Education Freedom Accounts, giving parents a debit card allowing them control over 100 percent of the annual per pupil spending on public education in their city or county. They could spend the money only on education expenses, such as private school tuition, the cost of attending a charter school, remedial education, blended learning, or additional tutoring. Any money not spent in one year would be rolled over to the following year, and ultimately could be spent on college. Under this system, perhaps for the first time in American history, all students would “own” and control their education. With Education Freedom Accounts, all students, not just those with parents wealthy enough to buy a house in a good school district, would have equal educational opportunities.
As Judge Jerry Baxter, in sentencing the Atlanta adults, said:
“Everyone starts crying about these educators. There were thousands of children harmed in this thing. This is not a victimless crime.… These kids were passed on and passed on. The only chance that they had was the school. There are victims in the jail, kids who I have sentenced.”
Suppose, for example, Judge Baxter, after the jury found APS to be a corrupt organization, had required APS to offer Education Freedom Accounts as a remedy for the harm done to the real victims of the scandal, the students. Had he done so, each student would receive over $13,000 annually in their accounts, the amount per student identified on the 2012 Census Bureau report as the current per pupil spending amount for Atlanta. APS students would then have the financial means to escape the cheating scandal by using the funds to pay for remedial education, pay private school tuition, pay for charter schools, or even pay tuition to surrounding public school districts. With Education Freedom Accounts, families would not be limited, by the lack of financial resources, to only one option, APS, a system judged by the community to be a corrupt enterprise.
Education Freedom Accounts are the solution to the national scandal known as public education in the United States. The only way to achieve our American ideals of equal opportunity is to give the real victims of both the Atlanta cheating scandal, and the larger Academic Industrial Complex, the power and control over the money.
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