Cage-Busting Leadership: Reforming Public Education from Within

Our team at GCO had the privilege of hosting Dr. Rick Hess this week. On Tuesday, Dr. Hess, who is an education scholar (and prolific writer) with the American Enterprise Institute, spoke at an early morning breakfast attended by a group of about 45 people that included politicians, lobbyists, academics, parents, and policy wonks.

While the crowd was diverse, each person shared a common concern about the depressing condition of public education in the state of Georgia and wanted to hear Dr. Hess’ thoughts on the subject. He didn’t disappoint.

Using his book Cage-Busting Leadership as the springboard, Dr. Hess challenged the group to consider how much innovation and real reform could be achieved within the current education system if administrators, teachers, and concerned parents stopped taking “no” for an answer.

He shared example after example of people who were able to break through the “cage bars” erected by overly risk-averse school system lawyers or years of outdated rules that still clogged school procedures and hamstrung teachers from addressing student needs.

The bottom line: With a little questioning and a lot of grit, it is possible to change the system so that children receive better educations.

Although Dr. Hess focused on ways to improve the system from within, he didn’t shy away from endorsing school choice as an important tool for giving children more and better options – and incentivizing the public system to improve. Wisely, though, he warned the audience that just changing laws – even something as significant as vouchers – will not be sufficient in itself to really change education if everyone at the school level simply continues to accept business  as usual.

In addition to legal reforms that allow parental choice and school flexibility, we must have pioneering and system-challenging educators and parents willing to question the status quo every time any engrained practice misses the mark of promoting our children’s best interests.

Those were all great points by Dr. Hess and a wonderful reminder that we have more power to change things than we may realize just by asking the question “Why not?”

Join us in asking that question and pushing for reforms that free parents and children to have more educational options and free excellent teachers to change lives.

Why Care About Prisoner Reentry?


When I tell people that part of my work involves heading up a project on prisoner reentry reform, I’m often met by puzzled looks. Given my organization’s other work – including fighting for education reform and school choice, encouraging stronger families, and combating human trafficking, etc. – many understandably wonder where prisoner reentry fits.

On the surface the answer is not necessarily obvious but, once I explain what motivates our work, the connection normally becomes clearer.

Over the last decade, part of our work involved efforts to strengthen families in the inner city through helping community leaders improve family life by offering workshops on relationship skills, conflict resolution, financial management, and similar topics to people in the community. The thinking – supported by the evidence and common sense – is that if you can improve relationships among family and community members, you can help improve many of the social problems people face. When you do this kind of work in the inner city, you quickly find that you can’t strengthen families there very successfully without also addressing the impact of incarceration, which too many inner-city families experience – especially in Georgia.

In 2009, the Pew Center on the States released a study showing that Georgia led the country with 1 in 13 adults under some form of correctional supervision. Nationally, the number is 1 in 31. The Georgia number includes some 56,000 prisoners and 160,000 probationers. Annually an average of 20,000 prisoners are released and, as our experience in inner-city Atlanta confirmed, most are not prepared to be successful outside the prison walls. Of those released nationally, nearly 65 percent will be re-arrested in three years and, in Georgia, about 30 percent will find themselves back in prison within that time.

That is why we launched our prisoner reentry working group in July after many months of research, dozens of interviews, and visits to four state prison facilities. Our nine working group members consist of individuals with considerable expertise in Georgia’s correctional system and a strong interest in improving outcomes for prisoners returning to the community. The working group will meet monthly over the next year to develop policy and service related recommendations on ways our state can improve prisoner reentry to reduce recidivism while improving positive outcomes for prisoners (like job attainment and retention, housing stability, and staying sober and drug-free, among others).

During our first meeting, the group quickly decided upon several broad areas of focus for their work over the next year. Those areas include

  • Employment: Looking at ways to remove barriers to and increase opportunities for prisoners to obtain and retain employment upon release
  • Reentry Courts: Exploring how the state might create courts that specialize in working with prisoners as they are reentering the community
  • Transitional Centers: Finding ways to increase the capacity of Georgia’s transitional centers to serve more people and looking at whether centers specialized to work with specific kinds of offenders could be more effective in reducing recidivism

While each of these topics is large, the working group is committed to zeroing in on very specific, common sense ways to improve each area that offer the greatest potential for measurable improvement.

In the coming weeks, we will be posting updates on the working group’s progress. Needless to say, we are encouraged by the work the group has done so far and by the level of commitment each person has shown in improving outcomes for reentering prisoners.