Like just about everybody else, I’ve been trying to get my head around the proposed constitutional amendment, appearing on the November 6 ballot, that would resurrect the state Charter School Commission.
The rhetoric of many amendment supporters reflects a conviction that public education should operate more like a marketplace so consumer choice and creative destruction can better align public school offerings with what parents want for their children.
Our state constitution says, “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia.” But following former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who famously said that parents should enjoy the same freedom of choice among educational services that they do when shopping for milk at the supermarket, amendment advocates apparently believe that tax-supported public education provides a purely private benefit, not a basic public good.
For example, Virginia Galloway, State Director of Americans for Prosperity Georgia, writing recently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, urged readers to “Vote for small government and getting government out of private decisions, like how to best educate your children.”
Some proponents of views like Galloway’s think they’re just embracing “Jeffersonian principles.” When the Wisconsin State Assembly enacted a piece of school choice legislation modeled on a similar Georgia law, Scott Suder, the legislature’s majority leader, told New York Times reporter Dan Kaufman that his core Jeffersonian philosophy was “getting government out of the way….”
I don’t know which Jefferson Representative Suder was talking about, maybe a Joe Jefferson he met in a bar. But Thomas Jefferson is on the record, regarding education, saying exactly the reverse of what Suder’s Jefferson believes.
In a letter to George Washington dated January 4, 1786, Jefferson wrote, “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that too of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This it is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan.” This clearly wasn’t a casual remark. Jefferson says it’s axiomatic—indisputable, absolutely certain—that self-government is impossible for citizens without “a certain degree of instruction.” And it’s the business of the state to provide it, not here and there as market vagaries may determine, but “on a general plan,” or as our constitution says, as a “primary obligation.”
What I’ve missed in the debate about the charter school amendment is even a glimmer of recognition of the critical public purpose that Jefferson assigned to state-supported public education. It’s not merely a private benefit, like free day care for working parents or college preparation for the able and ambitious. It’s an indispensable element of the architecture of a free society and the principle of self-government that sustains it. Whatever private benefits accrue to Georgians from their public school system, those benefits aren’t the reason that free public education is enshrined in our constitution as a primary state obligation. The private benefits, however valuable, are add-ons, not a substitute for the core public purpose of tax- supported education in a free society.
Some amendment supporters would have us believe that the people who administer our traditional public schools are just another interest group smothering innovation to protect sinecures they don’t deserve. But those people—school boards, superintendents, the state Board of Education—man the administrative structures to which Article VIII of our state constitution assigns the task of delivering the public benefit that the constitution singles out as a primary state obligation. They have a constitutional mandate to advocate for the “adequate public education” that the constitution promises every Georgia child.
But if you really want to see interest groups at work in the charter school movement, you need look no further than a recent Reuters report about tens of millions of dollars being invested in American charter schools by wealthy people from China, Nigeria, Russia and Australia all with the blessing of the United States government.
Under a federal program with the innocuous title of EB-5, since 1990 foreigners have been able to achieve permanent resident status here for themselves and their immediate families by investing at least $500,000 and creating at least ten jobs within a two-year period in government approved enterprises. Alert investment brokers, seeing a lucrative opportunity, have been busy matching up flush foreign investors with cash strapped charter schools. Although the report quotes an investor advisor as saying that the demand by both charter schools and foreign investors is “massive,” ratings agencies regard these investments as speculative and the IRS is said to be looking closely at the tax-exempt status of charter schools relying on for–profit management companies for physical facilities and academic programs.
So if, as Jefferson believed, the purpose of public education isn’t just to provide a private benefit, what’s the role of charter schools in furthering the great public purpose that Jefferson thought justified state support for education? What charter schools can do, within the framework of the constitution’s promised regime of “adequate public education,” is serve as laboratories for carefully crafted, conservative experiments designed to identify best practices that can be adopted by all schools. Since, as of last May when the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the state Charter School Commission, 160 charter schools had been approved by local school boards and only 16 by the former Charter School Commission, we already have a generous supply of such educational laboratories in place.
As Election Day nears, I hope the pursuit of private advantage won’t eclipse the great public purpose Thomas Jefferson called us to. Let there be experiments, by all means, but always guided by the knowledge that our experimental subjects aren’t mice or monkeys. Nor are they commodities to be served up to investors who neither know nor care about the indispensable role of public schools in a free society. They’re our children. That sobering realization should inspire us to deep respect for the educational equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath’s admonition to “First, do no harm.”