In a potentially far-reaching lawsuit filed on January 27 in Fulton County Superior Court in Georgia, three Atlanta families charged the State of Georgia and its agents with failing to provide their children with the opportunity for an adequate education. The parents are seeking the freedom to use the per-pupil funds spent on their children’s educations as an “opportunity scholarship” redeemable at any public or private school.
The children were students at Anderson Park Elementary in April 2004 when the Atlanta school board decided to close the school and assign them to another school, without any input from parents. Lacking the means to send their children to a private school or move to a neighborhood with better public schools, the parents had no alternative but to accept the district’s assignment.
An opportunity scholarship–or voucher–would provide them with the economic means to choose an alternative school.
“A voucher is the only meaningful remedy for a child trapped in a failing public school,” declared Clint Bolick, president and general counsel of the Phoenix-based Alliance for School Choice. “We hope this lawsuit will be only the first among many around the nation seeking to liberate children from failing schools.”
State’s Schools Failing
Among the statistics cited in the lawsuit as evidence of failing schools are the following:
- Georgia ranks 50th in the nation in high school graduation rate;
- Only 46 percent of the state’s black students graduate from high school, and only 26 percent of those graduates are ready for college;
- Forty percent of Atlanta’s students failed the science portion of Georgia’s High School Graduation Test in the 2003-04 school year; and
- In the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress for Urban Districts, only 8 percent of Atlanta’s black eighth-graders tested as proficient in reading, and only 3 percent tested as proficient in math.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the parents by Atlanta attorney Glenn A. Delk, is unusual in that suits charging educational inadequacy typically seek increased educational funding as the remedy. A lawsuit to that effect was filed in the same court last September 14 on behalf of 51 Georgia school districts by the Consortium for Adequate School Funding in Georgia.
In that suit, which calls for additional spending of $1.4 billion a year, the districts admit they are failing to provide an adequate education to some students.
Parents Seek Redress
In the new case, Williams v. State of Georgia, the plaintiff-parents agree with the consortium that the state and school districts have failed to fulfill their constitutional duty of providing all children with an adequate education. However, they point out this duty is owed to parents on behalf of their children, not to schools.
“The remedy is not more money to the school districts, but educational freedom for all parents,” the lawsuit asserts.
Bolick agreed, noting the right to education under the Georgia Constitution belongs to individuals, not to school districts. Article VIII, Section I, Paragraph I of the Georgia Constitution states, “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia, the expense of which shall be provided for by taxation.” [emphasis added]
“A remedy that gives more money to school districts that are violating their constitutional duties is no remedy at all,” argued Bolick, who led the national effort to defend the constitutionality of school choice programs from the original 1990 Milwaukee voucher program to the U.S. Supreme Court victory in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris in 2002.
Bureaucracy Dominates Spending
The Williams lawsuit points out Georgia’s public education system already has experienced “dramatic spending increases,” and yet academic achievement “has not budged,” particularly in schools with large concentrations of poor and minority students.
One reason for the lack of improvement, the lawsuit charges, is that more than half of the funds go “to pay for a bureaucracy before money ever reaches the classroom.”
Although a voucher remedy may be novel, the traditional approach of attempting to improve schools by increasing educational spending carries an array of practical, legal, and structural problems, according to a 1999 Manhattan Institute study by Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Heise and Duke University economics professor Thomas Nechyba.
First, Heise and Nechyba argue, such court actions could be viewed as rewarding failure. Second, despite increased spending in response to decades of school finance litigation, many of the targeted problems in inadequate schools have persisted or even worsened.
“[V]ouchers provide more immediate relief to aggrieved students by decoupling them quickly from underperforming schools,” Heise noted last year in Northwestern University’s Insight magazine. “During the time it takes a school or district to improve, education vouchers would afford students immediate access to schools already performing at an acceptable level.”
Parents’ Rights Hindered
The plaintiffs in the Williams lawsuit charge the state and its agents with hindering their fundamental liberty rights as parents to control the education of their children, through a variety of restrictive policies. These include:
- assigning schools on the basis of residence;
- charging tuition for out-of-district transfers;
- mandating the use of a dumbed-down curriculum;
- paying teachers by seniority and assigning them to schools accordingly;
- assigning teachers who did not major in their subject;
- imposing unnecessary regulations on public schools;
- imposing unnecessary burdens on the formation of charter schools; and
- funding schools through the use of property taxes.
The proposed voucher remedy would parallel two well-established state programs for preschool children and college students.
For more than a half-century, Georgia has given public funds to parents to help their children attend colleges or universities of their choice–public, private, or religious. And for more than a decade, the state has funded pre-K vouchers for parents to choose a public or private preschool classroom for their four-year-olds.
A recent study showed competition among public and private pre-K providers improved the quality of education for all students.
“It is time to extend rights afforded parents of 4-year olds, 18-year-olds, and parents who can afford residential or private school choice, to all parents of children ages 5-17,” the lawsuit asserts.
George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is associate editor of School Reform News.
For more information …
The complaint in Williams v. State of Georgia is available online at the Web site of The Alliance for School Choice at http://www.allianceforschoolchoice.org/docs/2005_GA_Complaint.pdf.
The October 1999 Manhattan Institute paper, “School Finance Reform: A Case for Vouchers,” by Michael Heise and Thomas Nechyba, is available online at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/cr_09.pdf.