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Why we will vote FOR the Georgia Charter School Amendment on Nov. 6

 As two of the founders of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, the second charter school to open in Atlanta, 10 years ago this fall, we have spent a lot of time considering the arguments in favor of and against Amendment 1—the proposed change to the Georgia constitution that if passed on Tuesday would allow for the re-establishment of an appointed state commission with the power to create charter schools.

Our personal conclusion: We support Amendment 1.

We’ve heard good people—including friends and allies whose right to make their own decisions regarding this we respect 100 percent–say they support “some” charter schools but oppose Amendment 1 because it’s going “too far,” is “too corporate” or gives “too much power” to the state. We know those views are truly sincere and well-intentioned. We share some of the misgivings.

But we also believe that many people don’t realize how precarious all charter schools are in Georgia right now—and what a serious threat that is to all of us who believe in the importance of diverse public schools serving every family from every background.

The three biggest arguments we’ve heard against Amendment 1 are this: 

  • First, that charter school proponents already have an “appeal” process to the state board of education if they are not given a fair hearing by a local school board;
  • Second, that approving this amendment would mean less funding for conventional public schools;
  • Third, that this gives the state “too much power” over public education and takes away the local control of local school boards. 

Based on our experience over the past decade, all three of those arguments appear flatly incorrect.

  • First, under the “appeal” to the state board of education allowed under current law, the best that a charter school organizer can hope for is to be approved as a “special” school receiving just a fraction of the funding that conventional public schools receive. Schools like those are doomed to fail.
  • Second, the only way that additional charter schools meaningfully divert funds from other schools is if they attract back to public education children who are not currently attending public schools. In a state where tens of thousands of children—more than 100,000 in Atlanta alone—have abandoned public schools, the idea of convincing a new generation of students and their families to return to public education is a GOOD thing. To argue otherwise is to accept all of the worst trends in public education over the past 50 years.
  • Third, and finally, how can anyone argue that the system of local school boards has been a good thing? Over the last 20 years. Suburban school boards have openly encouraged white flight from the city and resisted reform ferociously. The city school system continues—despite the valiant efforts of some who have tried to turn things around—to post abysmal academic performance and graduation rates, and is today most famous for Atlanta’s ignominious cheating scandal. What could possibly be the argument for continuing to give that system of governance total control of all public schools?

In our minds, what is even more important than any of those arguments is this: A tremendous attack is already underway that threatens the existence of ALL charter schools. It began when the old state charter school commission was struck down by the state Supreme Court last year—proving that for charter schools to thrive they cannot exist purely on the whims of local school boards. This is why the education policy of President Barack Obama calls for the creation of “alternative authorizers”—like the one Amendment 1 would establish–of charters in every state. 

THE ATTACK ON CHARTER SCHOOLS:

The ruling against the commission was in response to a lawsuit initiated by a few school boards that oppose the existence of all charter schools. Since that decision, the state Department of Education and many local school districts have already been recalculating formulas for funding in ways that have slashed millions of dollars from charter schools. It isn’t just that the bad economy has hurt everyone. Instead, local school systems have attempted to balance their budgets by disproportionately cutting funding for charter schools, diverting that money to non-charter schools and to make up shortfalls stemming from the systems’ poor financial practices in the past. Already, charter schools have had to band together to hire lawyers to fight some of these clearly unfair efforts.

If Amendment 1 fails, these attacks will accelerate. It will become vastly more difficult for new charter schools to be created in Georgia. And all existing charter schools in the state almost certainly will face a new barrage of obstacles when it is time to renew their charters. During the campaign over Amendment 1, local school leaders have repeatedly made it clear that they don’t even view charter schools as being public schools. They want to see all independent charter schools disappear. Based on past history, that attack will ultimately include going after well-established, high-performing, beloved schools such as Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. It will be up for renewal in just three years. 

To fully understand the importance of re-establishing the charter school commission, you have to look at the history of schools like the one we helped establish. It currently has generally good relations with Atlanta Public Schools, and there are many APS administrators who are committed to working in supportive ways with charter schools. We deeply respect those individuals and believe in them.

OUR EXPERIENCE BEFORE THERE WAS A COMMISSION:

But it wasn’t always that way. When we began working with a group of neighbors to create Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School back in the late 1990s, there was no charter school commission, and there were hardly any charter schools in Georgia. When we approached the administration of former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall with the idea of taking over the decrepit and underperforming elementary school in Grant Park that the system had announced they would soon abandon, she and others made it clear to us that our efforts were unwelcome. When we said we believed we could reconnect our neighborhood to the school and convince large numbers of families to reconsider public education, they blew us off. When we pressed ahead, APS fought our success tooth and nail—going to almost any length to prevent the creation of the school, and after it was established doing everything possible to shut us down. Administrators flagrantly denied funding the school was clearly entitled to. When our building burned catastrophically in 2003 during the first year of operation, APS illegally contracted for bulldozers to come in and remove what was left of the building (without even notifying us). APS lawyers worked bitterly to block us from receiving insurance funds we were entitled to get for reconstruction, and at the same time notified us that our charter was going to be terminated for failure to immediately rebuild. That’s no exaggeration. It was that bad.

We overcame those efforts at sabotage, miraculously. Our neighborhood banded together, rebuilt anyway and persevered. Dynamic and talented teachers began flocking to the school with their resumes, and our students began posting some of the highest scores in the city. (Without cheating.) As early charter schools like ours succeeded, though, metro Atlanta school districts still didn’t embrace them. Instead, they began adopting policies designed to make it virtually impossible for more charter schools to be established. There was no state charter commission then, so local school boards had complete control over the approval of new schools. By 2007, things were so bad that metro Atlanta school districts rejected almost every new charter school proposed that year—often on the most specious grounds. That wave of denials led directly to the state legislature voting to create a charter school commission in 2008 with the power to overrule rejections by local boards, and to fully fund those schools.

Only after that did the Atlanta board of education and other local school systems truly begin working in good faith with charter school groups. Soon APS had created a rigorous but completely professional system for considering applications. It accepted convincing proposals for high-quality new schools—such as Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School’s expansion into the middle school grades several years ago—and rejected applications that couldn’t make the grade. Serious charter school advocates like us applauded when the commission shot down inferior plans. Many other districts—though not all–took similar steps.

During the two years that the charter commission existed, there was no avalanche of poor performing new charter schools—as some opponents of Amendment 1 suggest would happen if it is approved on Tuesday. There was no syphoning off of hundreds of millions of dollars from starving conventional public schools. No attacks on teachers. No surge in social or racial stratification of schools.

Instead, with the charter commission keeping local school boards honest, the number of children attending independent charter schools in Georgia grew slowly and steadily. Gradually, the number of pupils rose by the end of 2011 to just under 60,000 in about 100 independent charter schools—or less than 4 percent of all public school students in Georgia. (That number excludes so called “charter systems,” which actually remain under the direct management of local school boards and differ very little from conventional public schools.)

In Atlanta during those years, the total number of students in charter schools grew to just under 4,000—including 637 students currently enrolled in kindergarten through 8th grade on the two campuses of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, where both our children have attended.

THE NEW ATTACK ON EDUCATION REFORM:

All that began changing when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in May 2011 that the state legislature didn’t have the legal right to have ever created the old charter school commission. (Read Doug’s op-ed on the ruling at the time here: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/opinion/charter-ruling-flunks-history-ignores-roots-of-seg/nQtnm/) Since then, growth in independent charter schools has stalled—at just above 60,000 students statewide. Local school boards no longer have to worry about being overruled if they reject a proposed charter or a renewal for no good reason. The number of proposals for new charter schools has plummeted—chilled by the newly hostile environment. At the same time, the state Department of Education, under the new direction of a state superintendent who has made clear his previously stated support for charter schools was less than it appeared, has become increasingly difficult for all charter schools to work with. Our funds have been cut much more dramatically than conventional schools.

Why does this matter even beyond charter schools?  It matters because charters have become one of the very few remaining places in the world of education where there are still people working to foster racially and socially diverse schools, and trying to convince families to stay in public schools rather than flee to private ones. That goal is at the core of Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School.  The driving force to improve Maynard Jackson High School, the conventional APS school in Grant Park, is an inspiring group of parents whose kids were reconnected to public education through our neighborhood charter school. Without charters, that would never have happened.

Meanwhile, in APS overall, the student population plummeted during the time since our group began working to create a charter school. There were about 57,000 students in APS at the beginning of Dr. Hall’s tenure—a tenure during which APS genuinely improved in some respects. Nonetheless, even as the population of Atlanta grew rapidly and charters were adding thousands of students to the APS rolls, the total number of students in the system dwindled to less than 49,000 by the time she retired in the wake of the Atlanta cheating scandal.

Charter schools are by no means a solution for every ill in public education. Just like the best conventional public schools, they are human endeavors, and like humans they are imperfect. Sometimes they fail. They should never replace all of traditional public education. But in the decade that charters have existed in Georgia, they have vastly more often provided quality education for tens of thousands of students who otherwise wouldn’t have had good schools to attend or would never have participated in public education at all. Far more important, charter schools in many areas have challenged the fossilized local school boards and education bureaucrats who long controlled public education across Georgia to finally wake up and get serious about meaningful reform. And charter schools—embraced nationally by Republicans and Democrats from Bill Clinton to George Bush to Barack Obama–have revitalized the idea that public schools should serve everyone, and not just those with no other options.

If Amendment 1 fails, it will be open season on all charter schools in Georgia, open season on the small number of conventional public school administrators who have been supportive of them, and open season on the only truly hopeful trend in Atlanta public education for a generation.

Vote yes for Amendment 1.

Doug and Michelle Blackmon 

Nov. 1, 2012

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