I am unalterably, unequivocally and un-any other word you can conjure up opposed to school vouchers. I consider them somewhere south of Gov. George E. Perdue’s beloved horse barn that got tanked this year. Lord willing, school vouchers will tank, too. They are a bad idea.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Johnson has made vouchers, which allow parents to transfer their children from public schools to a private or parochial schools at taxpayer’s expense, a key plank in his platform. Proponents tell me that vouchers will get kids out of failing schools and into schools “where they can learn” and will give parents “control of their child’s future.”
Why not just improve the school?
I would invite voucher proponents to visit Saxon Heights Elementary in Dublin — a small school with a 90 percent minority population and 90 percent of its students living below the poverty level.
A “failing school” if I ever heard of one.
However, Saxon Heights is anything but failing. For 13 years, they have been one of the top performing schools in the state and a model for how public education can work when government and the community pull together.
Ironically, the man credited with its success is running for governor on the Democratic ticket — former House Minority Leader DuBose Porter. (One of the newspapers where this column appears is the Dublin Courier-Herald, owned by Mr. Porter.)
Back in the late 1900s, Marie Hooks was the new principal at Saxon Heights. She received a call from Rep. Porter, who was chairman of the House Education Committee at the time.
The school was in his district and had some of the lowest reading scores in the state. He asked her what could be done to change that.
He suggested she get her teachers together and come up with a plan that they thought could “turn the school around.” She did and after consulting with her leadership team, Hooks said they needed smaller classes, more parental involvement and more technology.
Hooks told me the other day she can’t understand why more people don’t ask teachers their opinions.
“They are the ones in the classroom doing the work,” she said, “They are where the rubber meets the road.”
Porter brought the chairman of the state school board at the time — a guy named Johnny Isakson — school board members and department heads from the State Department of Education in Atlanta to help the school implement its program.
“They didn’t come to tell us what to do,” Hooks said, “but to support our plan. They respected our judgment.”
By the end of the year, Saxon Heights had turned things around and things have stayed turned around. Teachers are still involved in the school’s planning. Technology is an important component of the curriculum and parental involvement is remarkably high in an area where demographics would suggest that this would not be the case.
Hooks said, “We continue to solicit the teachers’ input and that of parents. When we take field trips, we invite parents, too. This is a rural school and many of the children and parents are going places and seeing things for the first time.”
And the kids are learning, too. These poor kids from poor homes are scoring in the 90th percentile on English and Reading Language and have made AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) every year with room to spare.
If Eric Johnson and members of the General Assembly would put aside their personal political agendas and ask public schools in their district what they could do to help, as Porter did in his, and then give them the support they want and need, vouchers wouldn’t be an issue because nobody would want them.
School vouchers are a cop-out. They encourage parents to walk away from public schools — on the taxpayer’s dime — rather than trying to improve the school. Saxon Heights Elementary is the model that should be emulated. This little school is the best argument yet against school vouchers.
If this is a “failing school,” I am going to personally build Gov. Perdue a horse barn.
You can reach Dick Yarbrough at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139.