It’s Moving Day

If you lived in a town like mine and had childrenarticle-0-188024AC00000578-907_634x657, moving day for your family would be virtually inevitable. My town is quaint with a great community vibe and good governance. We pay a little more in taxes to gain sidewalks, parks, and nice public facilities. My children have grown up here, but soon it will be moving day for us like so many other families I know.

When you go out on any sunny day here, you can’t help but notice all the young families with young children and strollers. But oddly enough, there are very few families of teens or young adults. My town is forever young, except for some retirees who are living out their life here since their adult children live elsewhere. Youth is invigorating in a community although not as invigorating for an economy. Professionals just starting out flock to this town. They start their families here…and then they leave.

What accounts for this diverse flight away from my town that seems to cycle every few years? The school system primarily. Yes, our cute town attracts trendy boutiques and mom and pops, but these ventures frequently do not survive. People move out of this community in droves as soon as they can sell their home and buy a much smaller and more expensive one up the road. Often they remain in this very same large county, but they opt for an overcrowded school that has better track records for educating children. They vote with their feet and pay for a public school with a much higher mortgage rate. It’s not a better home that they are purchasing but rather a more promising future for their kids.

You see, we have lots of great churches with preschools here and then a spattering of some decent elementary schools here and there. But middle schools and high schools are pretty frightening. The toddler years fly by in a frenzy with muffins for moms and donuts for dads. But after we put away the diapers and pull ups, new concerns capture our attention. Moms of preschoolers become obsessed with discussions of schools- public or private? Which brave souls will dare to homeschool? Who is fortunate enough to have one of those great public elementary schools assigned to their lucky zip code? Then when the word gets out and parents log onto a website like Great Schools, the moving plans are hastily made.

For such an ideal community, our schools are shockingly low performing. Secondary schools here face serious problems and fall short of the illusions of suburbia. The realty that Georgia ranks near the bottom in education compared to other states in our region, despite spending more than any of them, becomes apparent when you realize that failing schools are not limited to the boundaries of the inner city.

Parents could simply stay and offer their own children as guinea pigs or maybe start up a public charter school? But that process takes years as even the newly reinstated Georgia Charter Schools Commission is likely to reject the vast majority of parent and community planned schools. Meanwhile, our children, community, and local businesses are left to flounder. So like survivors fleeing for their lives from a sinking ship, we save our families if we possibly can. Who has time for rearranging the deck chairs when it’s the future of our children that is at risk?

Oh yes, we also have an additional tax for improving schools – at least for building attractive new ones. Our last Ed-SPLOST was assigned by our county’s board of education to make even more improvements to a high school that is one of the top ones in the nation. Meanwhile, families who once moved into a nice new neighborhood discover why it is known as having starter homes when they find out that their elementary school is the oldest one in the entire county. And alas, it has never received SPLOST funds….moving day is around the corner for many of these families.

Private schools are an option for some if they can afford it. But with some careful calculations around the kitchen table, moving into a smaller, older home with a higher mortgage rate starts to seem like a bargain if it buys a new zip code with a new school that is more successful at educating kids. But what about those families who cannot afford to move? They are trapped in a system that assigns schools to families by a series of numbers known as a zip code. Georgia does have a law known as Public School Transfer, but most great public schools quickly fill up and are then – or maybe even sooner? – listed as full and unavailable.

There are answers to these problems, but they are often not embraced or supported by enough families to force real changes and educational reforms. Many mayors are backing plans to bring new schools into their cities – as they should, in order for their communities to survive.  Georgia now ranks a “C” in school choice options on the Parent Power Index issued by the Center for Education Reform. Public charter schools and access to private schools need to be expanded to serve more families since they currently serve a measly two percent or less of Georgia’s students.

In the end, when school choice is expanded and families are no longer trapped in failing schools, more communities, local housing markets, and local economies will be allowed to thrive and stabilize as the result of new freedom to make good educational decisions according to an individual family’s needs – regardless of bank account or zip code.

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