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JAN JONES


One-size-fits-hardly-anyone education system needs change


March 11, 2008
A bill making its way through the state legislature would give parents more options in public education when schools fail their children's needs.

Uncomfortable to the status quo, yes, but a critical piece in transforming education so all 1.6 million public school students can have a promising future.

The Georgia House of Representatives agreed recently with an overwhelming 120-48 bipartisan vote on House Bill 881. The Georgia School Board Association and other defenders of the status quo fiercely oppose it.

The legislation would facilitate more quality public charter schools to give parents choices that our archaic one-size-fits-hardly-anyone education system rarely does. For young people lost in super-sized schools exceeding 4,000 students or assigned to failing schools with more dropouts than graduates, charter schools provide a needed alternative.

Georgia's 71 public charter schools are changing lives for students that, on average, face greater challenges. Georgia's charter schools are more likely than traditional schools to enroll economically disadvantaged students and those with special needs.

Still, these schools' students outperform state averages on standardized tests.

Consider this example: Atlanta's KIPP WAYS School had 100 percent of its eighth grade students meet or exceed state standards on all four sections of the state-mandated standardized CRCT test last year. Ninety percent of the start-up charter school's student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

Unsupportive school boards exercise "local control" by providing only 70 percent of the funding traditional schools receive and no facilities funding (who really wants a little competition anyway?).

House Bill 881 pushes control to parents and communities, giving them a direct say in how their children are educated. Those with firsthand knowledge of the needs of a community's students – parents, teachers, business leaders, and other local community members – create nonprofit charter schools or contract with private providers and serve on their governing boards.

Parents cannot get more accountability than with a public charter school. If students don't show up, the school shuts down. If the school doesn't meet high objective standards established in its contract, its doors close.

What a contrast with some traditional public schools – 26 Georgia school systems failed last year to meet federal and state standards for adequate achievement. The only ones held accountable were the students confined to lousy or uninspiring schools and without options.

Hostile school boards themselves highlighted the need for legislation by rejecting outright 26 of 28 start-up charter school proposals last year, even though several received national accolades. Building Excellent Schools, a national non-profit, has pulled out of Georgia until state law changes after investing $600,000 to train future leaders of subsequently-denied charter school applications.

The public agrees. More than 72 percent of Georgians – Republicans and Democrats – support creating a state commission to approve and oversee public charter schools. School boards would retain their authority to open charter schools as well.

This path to better education is not untrodden: Georgia lags other states in its number of public charter schools.

What is it some school boards really fear? The scrutiny that comes from comparison? In addition to creating fine charter schools, a little healthy competition will drive stultified school systems to jettison bureaucracy and redeploy resources to truly improve performance.

The legislation would assure tax dollars follow the child to his traditional or charter public school similar to funding for other government services, such as Pre-K. Public school children should not be punished for exercising their choice to attend a charter school – which is, after all, a public school.

The school board does not own the money or the child.

What would the naysayers say to the student zoned to one of the 40 high schools with a dropout rate of 50 percent or higher? Is the "local control" mantra sufficient remedy for that child, one sentenced to complacency and low expectations?

Georgians are hungry for real change, not simply rearranging or spending more within the same public education box. And real change must include quality public school options for parents and their children. Yes, even when the local school board finds it uncomfortable.

- www.northfulton.com

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