Buoyed by back-to-back successes of a voucher program for special-needs pupils and a tuition tax credit program, Georgia this year went straight for another victory in the school choice sweepstakes.
The General Assembly adopted this spring a public school choice program that took effect just before the new school year began, allowing parents to transfer their children from one public school to another of their choice.
Sponsored by state Rep. Alisha Thomas Morgan (D-Atlanta), the legislation allows parents to transfer their child to another public school in their home school district if they provide transportation and there is room available in the school of their choice.
School administrators have yet to warm to the idea.
“My philosophy when it comes to education is parents ought to have as many options as possible—whether public or private,” Morgan said. “With so many people worried about money leaving public schools with private choice options, you would have thought there would have been overwhelming cooperation. But the establishment is just opposed to change and wants the status quo, period.”
Administrators of Georgia’s 180 public school systems are some of the most powerful political figures in their communities. Opponents of the new law argued it would create overcrowding, shopping for schools with better sports teams, and “cherry-picking” students with the best grades.
The law, however, prohibits any type of “entrance” requirement for transfers other than available space. No school official may use behavior issues, test scores, or other indicators to prohibit a transfer, as long as the child’s parent or guardian will transport him or her to the school.
That hasn’t stopped local school boards from using every trick in the book to keep students from exercising their new choice, proponents say. The Georgia High School Association, for example, which regulates sports, says any student exercising the transfer option will have to sit out a year before competing.
Some high-performing school districts also have forged contracts with the state so that, in exchange for continuing to improve student achievement, they can waive adherence to mandates such as the new public choice law.
“Some will find any excuse they can not to give kids choice,” Morgan said. “Parents are excited they can have more options, but they are frustrated” by the obstacles set up by choice opponents.
The new public school choice legislation has drawn more controversy than the state’s first voucher program, which was enacted in 2007. Morgan’s plan has drawn ire not only from schools but also from legislators on both sides of the aisle, who say it will be disruptive.
The law requires school districts to notify parents of the public school choice option, but that was done during summer break when fewer parents were making school year plans.
Morgan predicts it will take several years for most public school parents to discover the new choice plan. She said less than half the parents interested in the new choice program were able to access it for the 2009-10 school year because public schools said they didn’t have room to accept students wanting to transfer.
“It was a strategic decision on the part of some superintendents and school boards who had a fear of the unknown and really didn’t want to cooperate with this public choice option,” said Morgan. “They are hiding behind the excuse of not having space. But there are systems that are very accommodating and offered a slot for children to transfer this school year—especially ones that had already been moving in this direction anyway.”
Resistance May Backfire
Observers say if Georgia’s education establishment remains resistant to public school choice, it may be easier to concentrate on pushing private options.
“It’s obvious that Georgia educrats don’t want anything disrupting the status quo, which is tragic for children in poor-performing schools,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national advocacy group based in Indianapolis.
“After adopting a special-needs voucher and a statewide tuition tax credit program in the last two years, Georgia lawmakers may see this resistance to public school choice and say it’s time to throw open the doors to a system that allows parents to use their tax dollars to choose any school, public or private, that works best for their children,” Enlow added.
Susan Laccetti Meyers ([email protected]) is a former policy advisor to the Georgia House of Representatives.