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Back from Georgia, Land of the Libertarians

Hi all, I'm back. I'd like to thank Pat McGuinn and Paul Manna for two terrific weeks of guest blogging. If you've missed any of their posts, I'd encourage you to go back and check them out. They were terrific stuff.

Meanwhile, I've just spent the better part of three weeks lending a hand to school reform efforts in the Republic of Georgia. For those who don't follow developments in the Caucasus countries, Georgia is an intriguing place. Formerly part of the Soviet Union (and the birthplace of Joseph Stalin), Georgia declared its independence from the Soviets in 1991. After a decade of out-of-control crime and corruption, the government was turned out in 2003 when protestors stormed the parliament in response to a suspect election. In early 2004, this Rose Revolution (for the flowers the protestors carried) ushered a 30-something, U.S.-educated lawyer named Mikheil Saakashvili into the presidency. A libertarian and unabashed reformer, Saakashvili has tried to transform this nation of nearly five million. And he's having more than a little success.

Regarding a nation that less than a decade ago was thought to be on the brink of economic collapse, the World Bank now speaks of a "Georgian phenomenon." Saakashvili likes to compare Georgia to Singapore and Hong Kong. The capital, Tbilisi, offers much of the same charm as a Prague or Budapest, straddling a collection of impressive old churches, cobblestone neighborhoods, and notable swaths of urbanity (all interspersed with stolid Soviet-era buildings). On the World Bank's annual Doing Business rankings, Georgia has climbed from 112th in 2006 to 11th in 2010. It's shot from 18th to second in registering property, as well as vaulted into the top ten when it comes to starting a business and employing workers. (As an aside, it's a shame that these kinds of metrics, which help guide efforts to liberalize developing economies, are pretty much absent in American K-12 schooling. But keep an eye out--I'm hopeful we'll see something that ranks America's cities for their friendliness to school reform in this fashion later this summer).

Meanwhile, Saakashvili and his libertarian-leaning allies took school choice seriously when they waded into education policy. They weren't kidding around, drafting a law guaranteed to bring smiles to my friends at the Cato Institute. 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." And, just for good measure, showing the libertarian bent bred by close to a century of Soviet subjugation, the law also states that, "Violation of editorial independence of school editions and censure of books within the school library shall not be allowed" and that "a school has no right to lead or control the process of meeting of pupils, parents, or teachers against their will."

On Wednesday and Friday, I'll offer a few thoughts regarding the shape of Georgian school reform, which holds more than a few instructive lessons for those in the U.S. and elsewhere.

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