"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Georgia Charter School Bill (HB 881) to Bypass Local School Boards While Taking Their Funds

The editorial board of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls it the "charter school hustle." The idea is quite simple: 1) deny district school boards the right to have input on new charter school applications by putting the decision in the hands of a committee of ed industry toadies who have been appointed at the state level, and 2) to put state and locally- appropriated school funds into the hands of the corporate charter school operators. This represents nothing less than anti-democracy at work. Call it fascism or corporate socialism, but whatever you call it, it is virulently antidemocratic:
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/31/08

Lawmakers bristle over dictates to the hinterlands from the state folks in Atlanta. Except, of course, when the lawmakers themselves are the ones in Atlanta trampling local control.

And that's exactly what the House Education Committee did this week when it endorsed a charter school law that allows applicants to bypass local school boards and pitch their case to a new state seven-member commission nominated by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker and approved by the state school board.

While the state school board can now overrule a local board and sanction a charter, that new school is not entitled to the tax dollars raised locally for education, only to the state and federal shares. Under House Bill 881, charters get the whole caboodle — state, federal and local dollars. (The bill obfuscates this issue with some cloudy language, but local tax dollars are in the mix.)

HB 881 represents a frontal assault on the constitutional powers of school boards and a shift of critical decision-making to a political commission that will have no firsthand knowledge of the district's needs, the local system's own development plans or whether the charter applicants have any credibility or relationships in the community.

Nor will the commission have any accountability to local voters, who, if angry over their school board member's resistance to charters, could always vote the rascal out of office. Those voters will have no recourse against the actions of this commission, which will operate in de facto anonymity, most likely in a nice suite of state offices in Atlanta.

As the sponsor of HB 881, state Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta) maintains that the Legislature had to intervene because too many school boards were "indifferent, disinterested and occasionally hostile to charter schools." Of 28 charter school applications last year, she said local school boards approved only two.

A charter school is a public school that operates according to a contract that's been approved by a local board of education. In exchange for great flexibility, the charter school must meet the performance objectives spelled out in the charter or face closure. Nationwide, there are 4,000 charter schools, serving a million students. Georgia has 71 charter schools, four of which were approved by the state board of education.

Some local school boards have indeed treated charter schools as unwashed and unwelcome cousins and thrown too many obstacles in their path. However, some charter applications deserve rejection because they weren't ready or weren't realistic.

It's also worth noting that the same Legislature now lamenting how traditional public schools resist innovation has imposed so many constraints on school systems that they can't even change brands of paper clips without triplicate request forms.

Those House members eager to strip school boards of control should consider their response if the federal government, citing the General Assembly's dangerous dereliction of water conservation, waded into the issue, created the action plan and handed the bill to the state. The steam coming out of lawmakers' ears would tarnish the Gold Dome.

In a great act of chutzpah, the General Assembly is wresting control from school boards at the same time it's dumping more of the financial burden for education on them. The message to the local districts seems to be "pay more, say less." Nor have lawmakers considered any of the nuanced and contradictory evidence about the efficacy of charter schools. Yes, there are wonderful charter schools in Georgia, although some of the most impressive were existing public schools that converted to charter status. DeKalb's Chamblee High School and Cobb's Walton High excelled long before adding the word "charter" to their names.

One of the four House Education members who voted against HB 881 because of its disregard for local control, state Rep. Mike Keown (R-Coolidge), said, "Anything about charter schools is going to pass this year. It's like a runaway train."

And that's the real problem — the Legislature's single focus on charter schools as the key to improving education. Without a review of the research, lawmakers have adopted the position that Georgia's arid education landscape will bloom anew by seeding hundreds of new charter schools. Rather than getting into the hard work of reforming schools, lawmakers are settling for renaming them.

In a new book due out next month, "Spin Cycle: How Research Gets Used in Policy Debates, The Case of Charter Schools," Columbia University professor Jeffrey R. Henig cautions, "Policy-makers need to know that charter schools are neither a panacea nor poison. ... If charter schools have consequences — good or bad — they are incremental, less powerful than consequences flowing from other variables, and contingent on circumstance, policy design, administrative implementation, and local context."

No matter if they are traditional or charter, effective public schools must have adequate funding, well-prepared and smart teachers, passionate leaders, targeted help for struggling students and a hands-on, relevant curriculum.

Until the General Assembly and the governor are willing to furnish those critical needs, schools in Georgia can be called anything they want — except successful.

— Maureen Downey, for the editorial board

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