MACON – Hundreds of charter public school advocates who traveled here last week heard Apple founder Steve Jobs remembered, discussion about a proposed national legal defense fund to help protect charter schools that are under legal assault and they heard a glimpse about what might come after No Child Left Behind. But if they were hoping to hear about a resolution to who can authorize charter schools in Georgia, that wasn’t happening.
Georgia – once considered a national leader in alternative authorization for charter schools – took a significant step in another direction – some say backward — in May when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission was unconstitutional.
The decision returned authorization solely to local public school district boards of education. Fifteen schools and nearly 15,000 students affected by the ruling were given a reprieve within three months when the state board of education re-authorized them as state special schools and Governor Nathan Deal found some $10 million to reopen the doors.
But their long-term viability remains in question. Emergency funding is good only this year. A legal framework that would enable the state to help new charter schools open without local public school district board of education approval remains in limbo until at least the General Assembly next year.
Appearing on video Governor Deal told some 300 conference attendees, “Charters have proven to be a valuable tool in Georgia’s education portfolio and we will take the necessary steps to protect your mission.” State schools superintendent John Barge said, “There’s probably going to be a push for a constitutional amendment.”
What that amendment might say will remain undecided for months. It could appear on the November 2012 ballot. First it would need two-thirds approval by the state Senate and House. Achieving General Assembly support might prove harder than convincing voters.
“We shall overcome the decision of the Supreme Court! We shall!” Tony Roberts, CEO and president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association said to robust applause. Roberts also pledged to double the number of charter schools in Georgia – currently 226 – within ten years.
Peter Groff, senior advisor at the Black Alliance for Educational Options and former president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, proposed creation of a national legal defense fund “that pools the greatest minds in the country together to talk about how we can figure out where legal assistance is needed, where we need to go in and fight. Imagine what would have happened if we had a legal defense fund in place when this suit in Georgia came up.”
Groff said, “If you believe as many do that education is the civil rights issue our time then you know it is at this time in a civil rights movement when the courts come into play. You all know that better than anyone. “I have encouraged very loudly the sector to explore every legal avenue available not only to solidify and protect but to be progressive and strategic to ensure equity across the public education spectrum.”
Barge delivered the lunchtime keynote address two days after undergoing major knee surgery. He made his way onto the podium with crutches and an aide close at hand. His thoughtful, well-crafted discussion of education policy began with “You guys; I appreciate what you are doing.” Barge – then just four months on the job – played a pivotal role in helping to keep open the state’s 15 former charter commission schools after the Supreme Court decision.
Barge said he is “very confident” the U.S. Department of Education will grant Georgia’s request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind graduation mandates. Federal officials, acting on behalf of the White House, invited all 50 states to apply for waivers. Georgia did, and Barge traveled to Washington to submit the waiver request and discuss changes to statewide public education accountability.
Barge tried to provide a soft landing for the next graduation rate report that will be released this fall. “Statewide we’re looking at a little over 10 percent reduction in the graduation rate.” One year ago the state said 80 percent of high school students graduated on time. The next report is likely to be less than 70 percent because the national formula for how states count graduation rates has changed. Five-year graduates are no longer considered “on time.”
The superintendent also said a new career pathways emphasis will begin next fall for all high school incoming freshmen. “College is the most expense career development program there is,” Barge said. “Guys, in K-12 education we can do a much better job helping children find out what it is they are interested in and pursuing that.”
Roberts – the Charter Schools Association CEO and president – paused during his keynote address to honor late Apple founder Steve Jobs who passed away last Wednesday.”
“I say this sincerely, we all share sadness at the passing away of Steve Jobs, a man who started the business that brought us this (Roberts held up an IPad) in his garage. He would have made a good charter school student or a good charter school leader. This man Steve Jobs because of the technology that we have now is probably going to be one of the most influential people in the advance of education that we have ever known.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Georgia became the national battleground over charter public schools alternative authorization last month when the state Supreme Court ruled the three-year-old charter schools commission is unconstitutional. So it was not surprising that there very pointed references to that decision Tuesday when the 2011 National Charters School Conference opened in Atlanta.
“Fifteen thousand students have been left in limbo by a dreadful decision from the Georgia Supreme Court,” said National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff. “How we answer will define us for generations.” Groff invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he called for a “next generation of high quality schools fueled by technology.”
Moments earlier, and not entirely in jest, Georgia Charter Schools Association President Tony Roberts welcomed some 4,000 conference goers to “Georgia where anyone can grow up to be a state Supreme Court justice even if you cannot read the state Constitution.”
Charter school educators have come from across the nation to discuss alternative authorization, digital learning applications, crisis message management, how to start and fund schools, learning accountability and literally dozens of other educationally relevant topics.
During a 45-minute address former President Bill Clinton told charter educators to “put our country back in the future business” after accepting the NAPCS inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. Clinton described the current “food fight” in most contemporary political dialogue. Click here for additional coverage of the former President’s address.
Tuesday’s opening session included two of the charter schools world genuine superstars, New York City educator Eva Moskowitz and Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker.
“I understood a long time ago that schools and politics are inextricably linked,” said Moskowitz who opened the first Harlem Success Academy five years ago in New York City. “Our schools are knocking the ball out of the park which now means we are considered a threat, not only to public schools, but to the political establishment.”
The Harlem Success Academy story was chronicled in two charter school movement films, “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman.” Moskowitz encountered stiff opposition from the New York City teachers union and also some community groups. Two years ago the New York Times cited Harlem Success Academy as #1 in math statewide among all 3,500 public schools. Six more Success Academies have followed in just five years, with plans to open 40 more.
“We are tasked with building a better mousetrap, introducing innovation to a sector that has long resisted it,” Moskowitz said. “I believe we are on the cusp of a golden era in education. I raise the question, what is possible for our children? I don’t know but it is our job to find out. We must innovate every day. We must resist the temptation to do things the same way they have always been done and we must question our own perception of what is possible.”
Newark Mayor Cory Booker is well known for creating a partnership with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who contributed $100 million to improve Newark student success and champion great teachers. Booker is energy unleashed; his magnetism compels attention.
“We are in the most important fight for justice in generations,” Booker said. “Audacity, audacity, always audacity. We have underestimated the profound genius, the ability of our children. We have become comfortable with failure and it is time for a wake-up call. We are here to disturb the comfortable. We were not born for mediocrity. We were born to stand out.”
Booker issued fair warning to underperforming schools: “We cannot accept mediocrity or failure in the charter movement. I don’t care how a school came into existence. I distinguish between schools of excellence, and I distinguish between schools that suck. If that school happens to be a charter school then that school should either improve or move out of the way and let somebody else do the job.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman will speak Wednesday. Duncan’s address will be by satellite from Washington. The conference ends Thursday with a rally at the State Capitol, across from the Supreme Court. Click here to learn more about the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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