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For Georgian Choice, Slips Twixt the Cup and Lip

The Republic of Georgia's attempt to embrace expansive school choice has encountered some substantial roadblocks, all of which are more than a little familiar and may provide some useful guidance and cautions for those promoting choice-based reform in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Georgia offers a terrific illustration of the difference between choice in theory and in practice. The theory of choice requires that schools compete for students, with rewards flowing to schools that attract students (and therefore revenues) and adverse consequences to those that do not. However, in Georgia, there is no shame in being director (e.g. principal) of a school whose revenues do not cover its outlays. Indeed, half or more of the nation's 2,300 schools are now "deficit" schools. The rationales and excuses are many. "High mountain" schools cannot attract new students (though, of course, they also don't lose students, and they receive a voucher weighted at 1.7 times the basic voucher), utility bills are unexpectedly high, especially in areas affected by the 2008 Russian invasion, and so on.

As the reform-friendly Transparency International Georgia concluded in a 2010 analysis, the reforms have "not been as successful in achieving many of [their] objectives as had been hoped. A lack of funding for the voucher system has meant that schools have not been able to assert their financial autonomy. School boards of trustees have been undermined by a range of factors, including the lack of clear rules from the center. Indeed, the government appears to be undecided on whether it really wants decentralization at all. Amendments to the Law on General Education passed in 2009 significantly weakened school principals vis‐à‐vis the Ministry of Education and Science." 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.

If enough students don't attend, principals just ask for more money each month. Meanwhile, school directors are theoretically empowered to dismiss or reward staff (at least according to ministry officials), but directors themselves either don't believe they really have that power or are loath to use it. Why? They don't want to upset communities, older teachers are dependent on their salaries because pensions are tiny, it's just not the way things are done, and so on. Pretty standard (I made some not dissimilar points regarding Milwaukee vouchers in my 2002 book Revolution at the Margins), but still a reminder of how choice theorists have shown a curious reluctance to consider the real-world challenges of market-driven school reform.

Now stop me when this sounds familiar. School directors in this market-driven system supposedly have the legal authority to dismiss teachers but explain that they cannot do so in practice because of court rulings and local resistance. The lack of a quality assessment instrument means that directors may lack legal grounds for terminating agreements. The result? A 2009 "Need Assessment for Principals" study authored by two Georgian researchers reported that approximately 90% of dismissed teachers win court disputes after a termination--forcing directors to take them back "even in cases of gross violation of school ethics." Also, directors technically have the authority to assign teachers instructional hours, but they routinely turn that decision over to teacher committees.

Once again, we can see all the ways in which school choice is not a self-executing strategy or a panacea. It is one useful tool in smart efforts to rethink schooling, but it has to be approached accordingly. Georgia is a fascinating place and well worth checking out, especially for ed reformers curious to see how a choice regime adopted enthusiastically by a libertarian government just five years ago has played out in practice.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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