With the passage of the Charter School Amendment in Georgia, Amendment 1 on the ballot, now is the time to plan and look ahead. While I did not support the amendment because I believe we need to invest in improving our public schools, using tax dollars to innovate the teaching and learning environment, I do believe charter schools serve an important role in this work. Because charters are free of some constraints, they have flexibility to innovate in ways some public schools find challenging. However, I support more local control over approving charter school applications, so long as the local school districts encourage worthy applications and evaluate them openly and honestly. Finally, I believe that within public school clusters that have charter schools we need to forge partnerships between all the schools to advance teaching and learning within the community served by the cluster of schools. These partnerships will allow public and charter schools to share best practices, leverage their resources, and challenge each other to improve. Healthy competition, with a strong dose of collaboration, is good for all schools and the teachers and students they serve.
This is my challenge to Governor Nathan Deal as he begins the process of implementing the Amendment 1 program.
- Appoint members to the commission that can pass a litmus test demonstrating their deep understanding of the educational challenges we face in Georgia. Commission members should have strong roots in the education community at various levels.
- All commission members should sign a “conflict of interest and/or non-solicitation” clause that guarantees they will not be influenced by outside agents lobbying on behalf of corporate entities.
- All commission members should be “non-affiliated” to the Governor’s political structure and formal policies.
- All commission members should be expected to keep their eye on the target–Improving the Quality of Education for All Students in Georgia.
- Taxpayers must be given a clear picture of how charter schools will be funded through this new structure, both at the state and local level. For charter schools to succeed they need to be on a level playing field with their local public schools in terms of resource availability.
- The guidelines that are used to encourage and review applications for new charter schools should have some specific limitations placed the balance between applications from local communities and from for-profit charter corporations. Georgia does not need an uncontrolled influx of charter schools from out-of-state, for-profit corporations.
- The State Department of Education should develop a strategic plan that guides the future expansion of charter schools in Georgia, while we continue to support the improvement of our public education system. Governor Deal should be taking the lead in the development of this strategic plan that is available for public scrutiny.
- While the state charter commission will be approving charter applications, what is the role of the local school districts in the decision-making process? These guidelines should be clearly stated.
- All schools in Georgia should be held to the same high standards to meet the educational needs of ALL learners.
I have strong concerns that like any political system a new state commission on charter schools will be susceptible to the corruptive forces at play when large amounts of resources are in the mix. What will Governor Deal commit to that will demonstrate his accountability to Georgia taxpayers? For me, this central question remains unanswered. In my view, padding the wallets of people who are myopic and only see profits will not serve children in Georgia very well. Who will be the gatekeeper as we go down this road?
Remember Georgia ranks 45th in terms of average SAT scores and 47th in terms of graduation rate in the United States. We are currently failing a large percentage of our students. Are we really comfortable spending more resources to keep people in prison than educating them in our schools? It is not a student’s fault that school is unable to meet their needs. It is the fault of the adults in Georgia: politicians, school officials, teachers, and parents. We must collectively own responsibility for this failure. If Amendment 1 fulfills a goal to develop a robust charter school network in Georgia, then perhaps it is one of the legs on a three-legged stool for improving the quality of education for Georgia’s children. In that case, I will have been converted. But the jury is out.
We do need to understand that there are two other legs that support the stool. One of them is to wisely invest in improving our public schools. We need to invest in more than new buildings, value-added teacher evaluations, iPads in the classroom, and Common Core curricula that are tightly pinned to a high-stakes testing culture. These investments, which we are all too familiar with, will not improve teaching and learning for the 21st Century. We must be investing in innovative approaches to instruction and classroom assessment, high-quality teacher preparation programs, strong induction programs for new teachers and ongoing, job-embedded professional development for all teachers. The research tells us very clearly that if we invest in these types of programs we can improve student engagement and achievement. Let’s not let only politicians and educational bureaucrats hold the purse strings on how to wisely invest our precious taxpayer dollars.
The final leg on the three-legged stool is to invest in changing the face of poverty in Georgia. Pedro Noguera, who recently spoke at the Center for Teaching at The Westminster Schools as part of an event to support Odyssey, is an avid spokesperson on the importance of building capacity in our school communities. He talked about the need to invest at all levels in local communities if we want to improve our schools. He shared this image as one way of looking at what it means to build capacity. The heart of his message is that if our society continues to support enormous inequities in wealth, as well as how we inadequately fund many schools, we shouldn’t be surprised if we are unable to change the face of education in America. It will take a broader and bolder approach than what we are now doing. We have been reforming education in America for decades and we really have very little to show for the huge investment of time and resources that we have put into a plethora of efforts. Why? We are neglecting to build capacity in our local communities.
So Governor Deal, the challenges ahead are to build the three-legged stool in Georgia. This can be accomplished if we are always looking clearly through the lens of how we can better serve ALL students in Georgia so they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st Century.