Rick Hess Went Down to Georgia…

From time to time, it’s worthwhile to look outside the borders of our United States to glean some valuable lessons about school reform. Rick Hess — one of the more thoughtful education policy gurus out there — recently returned from a two-week trip to Georgia and shared his thoughts.

So some of you are thinking… Georgia? A different country? Maybe like 150 years ago or something.

Wrong Georgia. We’re talking halfway around the world, not just across the continent. Anyway, Hess notes the heavy emphasis on reform in the former Soviet republic in what he calls the “land of the libertarians”:

The 2005 law on general education, as enacted by parliament, declared, “The state shall protect freedom of educational choice of a pupil and a parent…The state shall finance education of a pupil from the central budget by a voucher [and] every parent has a right to get a voucher for financing the education of a child who reaches school age.”

On the surface this does look like great news. But apparently it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Hess follows up to explain why just creating a “voucher” law may not guarantee success:

Georgia offers a terrific illustration of the difference between choice in theory and in practice…. In short, a seemingly elegant market design has been undermined by the familiar shibboleths of problematic funding formulas, incoherent governance, ambiguity about the practical extent of school autonomy, and the reluctance of state officials to keep their hands off the schools.

There is more involved to ensuring education reform success than implementing school choice, and there is a lot more involved than simply passing any old “voucher” law with insufficient preexisting conditions and simply waiting for something magical to happen. Hess goes on to note that the nation of Georgia has begun rolling back some of its “libertarian” education reform, at least in part for pragmatic reasons.

In any case, it’s good to broaden my horizons and see that this foreign country Georgia is not some place where people speak our language just with a funny accent.

And lest you think the title of my post suggests something it does not, I am not implying anything about Hess’s character or that’s related to any nasty, soul-buying evil figures. Nor will you find an iota here about highly-skilled fiddle players. But if I got you to read this far and provoked a little thought, I certainly accomplished something.