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Westside Atlanta Charter … Changing Lives One Young Life at a Time

Mike Klein

Mike Klein

Republished by Charter Confidential

Frank Sinatra made the New York myth and legend seem so attractive – “I want to be part of it, New York, New York” – but after living her entire life there Adrienne Brooks wanted out. “You rush through everything in New York. You eat fast, you walk fast, you go, go, go,” she said. “I’m like, I need more grass area, not so much cement everywhere.”

Brooks especially wanted something different for her son, Christian. Three years ago this single mother said good riddance Big Apple, hello Atlanta. “I needed more space for him. I needed him to be outside running, playing and just enjoying that. You get that here in Georgia.”

They moved into an apartment northwest of downtown Atlanta and then Brooks went shopping. Not in Buckhead, not for shoes and swag, but shopping for her young son’s education. Brooks enrolled Christian in first grade at Westside Atlanta Charter School when it opened in fall 2013. She enlisted as a parent volunteer and later was hired as the school’s parent liaison.

“My budget is tight. It’s just me and my son,” Brooks said. “Every little penny I’m looking at to see where can this go, how much can I afford to spend, am I able to send (Christian) to a great school where you get the private school experience but I’m not paying the private school price.”

A field trip to Westside Atlanta Charter School was part of the “Amplify School Choice” conference hosted April 24-25 in Atlanta by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Two days of wonky talk led by experts from prominent policy organizations was wrapped around an opportunity to tour Westside Atlanta’s 163-student campus northwest of downtown.  (See website links below.)

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

Adrienne Brooks and her son Christian

“Most parents have had the experience where their kids were just lost in the sauce, meaning they were in these big classrooms,” Brooks said. “If your child is not that child that just stands out the teacher has so many kids that they don’t get that one-on-one-attention. Here it’s very small. The teachers have personal relationships with the children and the families.”

Westside Atlanta is located on Drew Drive in what can appropriately be described as a revitalization community. “Homes are starting to come out of the ground again,” said executive director Pete Settelmayer. He describes the location as “between Bankhead and Buckhead.” Forty-two percent of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Twenty-seven percent live in west Highlands which is a combination of middle class and subsidized public housing.

“This was set up to be the East Lake of the west side about 2004, 2005. Then we all know what happened in 2007,” Settelmayer said. The economic recession that started in 2008 significantly slowed down the aggressive project. And therein, an opportunity developed. Columbia Residential founder Noel Khalil gave Westside Atlanta Charter a $1-per-year lease to occupy unused commercial space for up to 11 years. The campus also includes a large modular facility for the Upper School.

Like every public charter school, Westside Atlanta is required to meet all Georgia state educational standards, but that is merely a starting point. “Our focus is to teach the children, not teach the test,” Settelmayer said. “We’re going to teach them to think critically.  We’re going to teach them to solve problems.  We’re going to teach them to have a go at things on their own with our support because at this level they need support.”

The Franklin Center conference brought together experts on virtually every subject central to parental school choice, especially funding formulas. The concept that public tax dollars should follow the student would do much to put parents in charge of education rather than the current model that favors funding school districts rather than funding individual student education.

“Americans want more freedom in almost every walk of their life,” Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice senior fellow Ben Scafidi told the conference. Scafidi is former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. “The reason we’re not getting it in schools is because there is a very well-funded, entrenched opposition but it’s going to come. Intelligent people that aren’t paid by the public school system are not on their side anymore. The politics have changed.”

Politics were not part of what Adrienne Brooks was thinking about when she decided to start over in Atlanta. For young Christian she wanted to replicate the quality of the Catholic School education she had as a child in New York, but at a price that she could afford. Brooks looked at several options before she decided on Westside Atlanta Charter School.

“It works because you have huge parental involvement,” Brooks said. “It’s one thing to have your teachers involved; that’s their job. They teach because they love it; that’s their passion. It’s another when you actually have the parental support. If the parent support is not there it’s hard for the school to survive. We make it feasible for them to be involved.”

Additional Resources:

Faith and Freedom Coalition
Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Georgia Public Policy Foundation
Westside Atlanta Charter School

(Mike Klein specializes in criminal justice, public education and economic development journalism and event production. He has held leadership positions with several media organizations including CNN as Vice President of News Production. Mike on LinkedIn.)

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April 27, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Early Political Education of Richard Woods

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

The path for Richard Woods to become Georgia’s new state schools superintendent opened after his predecessor committed political suicide. John Barge might still have the top education office if he had not alienated Governor Nathan Deal, made fellow Republicans furious and simultaneously angered thousands of school choice families.

Barge broke with Deal in August, 2012 when he said he would not support a constitutional amendment to recreate the state’s charter schools commission. Barge aligned himself with the traditional education establishment that dislikes charters and especially alternate authorization.

Suddenly an outsider among Republicans and ignored by the Governor’s Office, Barge made the decision to announce he would leave the Superintendent’s office after one term to challenge Deal in the 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary; thus ended John Barge’s career, at least that phase of it.

Woods appears to have noticed how that played out. This was obvious when Woods delivered opening remarks at the Georgia Charter Schools Association leadership conference. A surprise guest, Governor Deal, made an early morning decision to attend with First Lady Sandra Deal.

“I am a friend of charter school K-12 innovation,” Woods told educators who packed the Busbee Center Auditorium last Friday morning at Gwinnett Technical College. “People will get to know me and I will get to know you but I guarantee you this, you will have no stronger advocate, no stronger person that will support and sing the praises of the work that you do.

“I will work to make sure you have the funding, the personnel and the resources you need to reach every child that comes through your door,” Woods said during an eight-minute address. He concluded, “Across the state we want to make sure we allow teachers to do the one thing they want to do, that is, close your door and teach and reach their child.”

Barge became Superintendent when Republicans swept the state’s top executive offices in November 2010. He was viewed as being a supportive player in summer 2011 when Barge worked to help keep 17 charter schools open for 16,000 students after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled a state charter schools commission that was established in 2008 was unconstitutional.

One year later his decision to oppose a charter schools commission constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot aligned Barge with local boards of education and superintendents. The amendment passed with 58 percent. Barge chose to stand side-by-side with a bureaucracy that could not save him from political extinction.

The next few years will be exciting and challenging. Deal wants to create an Opportunity School District that would allow the state to take custody of failing schools. His new Education Reform Commission will propose long overdue changes to public schools funding. Supporters will advocate for creation of education savings accounts and expansion of tax credit scholarships.

Woods talks about wanting to cultivate “good press” to replace the “bad stories” about Georgia public education. His chances for success will be greatly enhanced by recognition of who makes and who implements policy. Georgia is a school choice leader. John Barge possibly would still be there if he had made a different decision. Richard Woods seems to already understand that.

(Mike Klein has written about Georgia public education since 2010.  He has held executive positions with CNN where he was Vice President of News Production, the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Mike on LinkedIn.)

RICHARD WOODS Georgia State Schools Superintendent (Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

RICHARD WOODS
Georgia State Schools Superintendent
(Georgia Charter Schools Association Photo)

February 4, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atlanta Classical Academy Educates Citizens for a Free Republic

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Each morning students at Atlanta Classical Academy finish the Pledge of Allegiance and then they add, “I will learn the true. I will do the good. I will love the beautiful.”

ACA Principal Terrence Moore said he introduced these simple ideas because, “If they can hold by those principles and if they really commit them in their minds and hearts then they will have a life that rich and full of happiness.”

Atlanta Classic Academy opened this month at full capacity with 488 K-through-8 students in a former private school located on Northside Drive in northwest Atlanta. ACA is the city’s only classical education charter school and in Moore it has an innovative education executive who’s done this before and excelled at a very high level.

Moore was founding principal for seven years at Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado. U.S. News and World Report ranked Ridgeview High School as the best in Colorado and the fourth best high school nationally among all open enrollment schools of every kind.

After Fort Collins, Moore moved to Hillsdale College in Michigan to become lead advisor to the Hillsdale Barney Charter School initiative that helps communities launch classical education charter schools. One of those was Savannah Classical Academy which opened in fall 2013. During his Savannah work Moore learned about the Atlanta Classical Academy opportunity.

What exactly is a classical education?

ACA New Logo“My way of explaining it to parents is saying, think about the good books that your grandparents or great grandparents read, how those came alive and how they’re still valuable,” Moore said. “This is exactly what this country had for a long time until we started trying to train kids for particular professions and we don’t even know what the children want to do,” said Moore.

“What we call education is a conversation about the great things in the human world and the great things in the physical world and for that to work you have to have a conversation not just among students but with the teachers themselves,” said Moore, who added that he wanted “intellectually ambitious people” on his faculty.

ACA’s first faculty includes Hillsdale College, Emory University and Berry College graduates, along with several from other Georgia and southern state universities. One teacher is a former Ridgeview Classical School pupil whom Moore has known since she was 12 years old and yes, he finds that fairly astonishing! Hundreds applied for 32 current full-time faculty positions.

Every ACA student will study Spanish in grades K-5 and Latin in grades 6-12. All students will attend art or music class every day. Reading will be taught based on phonics. Every student will wear a uniform. There will be extensive emphasis on solid memory and public speaking skills. The student-to-teacher ratio will be no more than 18-or-22-to-1 based on grade level.

TERRENCE MOORE

TERRENCE MOORE

“It’s the education the Founding Fathers had and wanted citizens of a free republic to have,” Moore said. “All we’re doing here is recovering common sense and the great tradition of reading the classics, understanding grammar and looking at our history through its original sources and through its great moments, and spending time understanding the logic and beauty of mathematics and the arts.”

The Academy has 54 students in each of nine grade levels, K-through-8. All students must reside within the Atlanta Public Schools system boundaries. The mix is former public school students and some from private or home school situations. The wait list has 1,200 names, nearly three times current enrollment. Ninth grade will be added next year and then one new high school grade each year until the school is K-12. “Three or four years from now we would be bursting out of this building,” Moore said.

Atlanta Classical Academy students will graduate when they complete high school. That means the first ACA graduation ceremony is a distant five years away. There will be no kindergarten graduation, no eighth grade graduation. “We live in an era of graduation inflation,” said Moore. His belief is that graduation should follow the completion of a “long, arduous and worthwhile” journey that prepares the graduate for “becoming a voter and eligible for active citizenship.”

When we spoke Moore was upbeat about everything including the start of carpool because, as every principal knows, nobody is happy when Momma is not happy! “You don’t want to start out the morning with your parents angry at you!” said Moore.

Atlanta Classical Academy Website

Atlanta Classical on Facebook

(Mike Klein is a journalist and media executive who has held leadership positions with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, Georgia Public Broadcasting and CNN where he was Vice President of News Production.  Learn more about Mike at LinkedIn.)

August 20, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Chattahoochee Hills Charter … Learning in the Natural World

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

Playing in the dirt will have an educational twist when Chattahoochee Hills Charter School opens next Monday in south Fulton County. With its emphasis on the environment, learning will take place inside and outside and classrooms will have removable walls that open to the great outdoors for hybrid inside – outside learning.

“We are part of the natural world,” said Chattahoochee founding Principal Chad Webb. “It takes all of us to create an environment that is safe and healthy and sustainable. I need individuals who want to get down and dirty with the scholars. Whatever we can do to create responsibility, stewardship and sustainability is our goal.”

With its emphasis on nature, all kids will engage in “community investigations.” This year first graders will reintroduce native plants to campus retention ponds. Eventually each classroom will cultivate an organic garden and professional chefs will teach Chattahoochee Charter kids how to prepare meals with garden crops when the new cafeteria kitchen is ready next year.

Three hundred K-5 students are enrolled. The wait list is 50 students. Most children reside in south Fulton with a heavy concentration from the Serenbe community that emphasizes nature, well-being and fulfillment.

CHCS-LOGOChattahoochee Hills also enrolled students from Atlanta, Palmetto, Hapeville, Fairburn and Union City. “We have a large net,” said Webb. School transportation is not an option so parents must make their own travel plans, regardless of distance.

Next Monday’s opening is two or three weeks later than when most Georgia public school systems re-opened and Webb said the reason is simple, “The buildings were not ready.” Thirteen buildings are being constructed on an 11-acre campus with three more acres still available for expansion.

This year Chattahoochee Charter will have traditional holiday breaks in November, December and a spring break. Whether the school adopts a more staggered calendar with multiple breaks similar to many public school systems will be decided next year.

Five years in development, Chattahoochee Hills received a state commission charter only to see that authorization vanish when the Georgia Supreme Court vaporized the state charter schools commission. Chattahoochee will open with Fulton County local authorization.

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Facebook Photo

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Facebook Photo

This year’s population is almost equally split between students who attended private and public school last year. Chattahoochee will open with 24 classroom, special education and reading teachers with an 18-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, less for kindergarten classrooms. Before and after school care will be available with a separate staff.

Webb said Chattahoochee has a $3.3 million first year operational budget with total personnel the largest obligation at $2 million. The school anticipates $8,600 in per pupil public funding and it has a very aggressive private fund-raising campaign. First year-construction costs came in at $3.6 million. The next fund-raising phase will finance new sixth grade facilities, an administration building with a sports gymnasium and cafeteria that should be finished in time for the fall 2015 school year.  Sixth grade will be added next year, seventh grade in fall 2016 and eighth grade in fall 2017.

With its emphasis on arts, agriculture and the environment Chattahoochee Charter has forged many unique partnerships that include the nearby 840-acre Cochran Mill Nature Center and the 100-acre Many Fold Farm that raises sheep for meat and cheese production. The nature center and farm both offer educational programs for kids.

Science will be integrated into all subjects and Webb said teachers who survived the six-hour interview process must have an appreciation for nature. “I told my staff, when you go home with dirt on your clothes you had a good day,” said Webb, “because you were really immersed in learning and you had the kids engaged. I told all the staff that has been hired, I need individuals who want go get down and dirty, literally.”

Chattahoochee Hills Charter School website

Chattahoochee Hills on Facebook

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 18, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Macon’s Newest Charter School Aims to Become Truly Classic

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

When the Academy for Classical Education opened this month elementary and middle school students had already finished extensive summer reading assignments even though they had never been inside a classroom, never met a teacher, never been to the cafeteria and never met new friends at Macon’s newest public charter school.

The reading emphasis was, classical!

“Because we’ve stripped a lot of true literature out of typical public education students are no longer able to tap into the emotion that engages them when they are reading,” said ACE co-founder and Principal Laura Perkins. This summer ACE students read classical works by Ernest Hemingway, Anne Frank, Maya Angelou, William Golding and other celebrated authors. Even kindergarten kids were required to complete listening assignments with their parents.

Are you getting the feeling the Academy for Classical Education is a different school? That is intentional and it reflects the laser focus of co-founders Perkins and Esterine Stokes.

Two years ago Perkins and Stokes just didn’t know how to quit. Long-time educators in traditional Bibb County public schools, they jettisoned retirement after just a few months to launch ACE. The school found its home in a partially renovated 200,000 square foot former corporate building on 39 acres. The property has exceptional potential but the real potential is within the classical education model.

safe_image“Esterine and I had 30-plus years in public education, wound up at the same school the last six or seven years and we retired at the same time,” said Perkins. Back in summer 2012 they would engage in “an almost continuous conversation about trying to move into retirement, reflect on our careers, purge it from our systems and move on with our lives. We couldn’t seem to do it.”

Within months Perkins and Stokes were writing a plan for the Academy for Classical Education that opened on Monday, August 4 with 760 K-through-8 students. ACE hired 48 teachers and eight teaching assistant professionals, whittled down from 600 resumes and some 340 initial interviews. Seven hundred students are on the current waiting list.

LAURA PERKINS

LAURA PERKINS

ESTERINE STOKES

ESTERINE STOKES

“The goal was to have a place where children matter,” said Perkins. “That’s not to say in other schools children don’t matter but somehow public education has gotten off track and we’re more focused on data points and less focused on the child. I want to be focused on the child.”

An ACE classical education means extensive Latin study that starts in third grade and continues in every subsequent grade. “A person who has a mastery of Latin has a solid vocabulary,” said Perkins. “They understand how to use words; they understand how to create words. That is the absolute foundation language for any student upon which to build their entire academic future.” Cursive instruction – the fancy name for handwriting – is a mandatory requirement.

Eighty students attend elementary grades K-through-5 and 100 students are enrolled in middle school grades 6-through-8. The plan is for all grade levels to expand by 20 new student slots in fall 2015 and eighth graders will roll up to a new ninth grade. Sixty-five percent of ACE students attended Bibb County public schools last year. Others were in private, home or virtual schools.

ACE quickly forged extensive relationships. Mercer University and Middle Georgia State College provided student teachers. Funding was generated from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia, the Peyton Anderson Foundation, State Bank Macon and lots of community people.

THE GRYPHON

THE GRYPHON

Perkins and Stokes selected the gryphon as the ACE mascot because, “We wanted a mascot that would be the model for qualities we want in our students. We want them to be strong, fierce and courageous but we also want them to be loyal, trustworthy and dedicated. When you see the head of the eagle and the body of the lion it was ideal.”

Perkins and Stokes retired from their traditional public school careers in June 2012, totally unaware they were about to become learning entrepreneurs. “The thing I kept telling myself was beware of what you don’t know,” said Perkins. “Try to ask as many questions as you could so things you don’t know don’t slap you in the face. Second, take it one bite at a time. If you look at it in totality, it’s overwhelming. Just keep plugging away, everyday accomplish something and you’ll get through it.”

Academy for Classical Education Website

ACE on Facebook

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 15, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tapestry Public Charter School’s Special Mission

MIKE KLEIN

MIKE KLEIN

First in a series of articles about new Georgia start-up public charter schools.

Devon Orland Christopher has a high profile position as the state’s senior assistant attorney general for civil rights litigation but her job as Mom is way more important.

“My son is what they call twice exceptional. He’s gifted. That is what gave birth to the school,” said Christopher who is co-founder of the Tapestry Public Charter School that opened today in DeKalb County. Co-founder Tonna Harris-Bosselmann also has an autistic spectrum child.

Autism is one among several behavioral disorders that can affect how children interact and engage socially. Their chances to succeed often are enhanced in smaller group settings and they sometimes struggle in the larger student populations found in many public schools.

Tapestry designed an individualized instruction model with a very small 8-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in four core subjects – English, social studies, math and science. Core subject instructors will be joined in the classroom by special education teachers. “There are lots of kids who can benefit from an individualized curriculum with smaller classes,” said Christopher.

Tapestry LogoElective courses that include drama will be offered with a 16-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, which is still much lower than many public schools. Other electives include computer class, yearbook production and visual arts, but there are some sacrifices. “We don’t have the full conduit of services that you expect in a middle school. No football, no marching band,” said Christopher.

Tapestry Charter found its home for 96 middle school students in renovated space at Northeast Baptist Church in Norcross. The ground game to launch Tapestry began three years ago for Christopher, Harris-Bosselmann and their partners. Tapestry secured charter authorization through the DeKalb County School Board. The school receives about $8,000 per pupil in total public funding and it has raised about $100,000 in private capital, which is a small amount.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Christopher. “If you do a conversion school you’ve got a building, you’ve got supplies, you’ve got all that. If you do a start-up, you’ve got nothing. You have to have space before you can submit your petition and most people aren’t really willing to sign a lease a couple years in advance. Fortunately with the folks at the church we were able to work it out but had they changed their minds we would have been in a world of hurt.”

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

Image from Tapestry Public Charter School Facebook page

Tapestry’s charter is authorization to offer grades 6-through-12. The plan is to add one new grade each school calendar year, starting with ninth grade in fall 2015 until Tapestry offers complete middle and high school curriculum in the 2018-to-2019 school calendar year.

A lottery was held to select this year’s 96 middle schoolers. The wait list has 100 more. “Our goal is to create a model that can be replicated,” said Christopher. “Autism has gone from one-in-10,000 in the Eighties and now its one-in-42 boys. Many of these kids have amazing skills and ability to be quite successful in a different learning environment. A sea of 1,900 people is just too much for them. Otherwise they can learn, develop, grow and become successful.”

Harris-Bosselmann teaches at the University of North Georgia. “The education piece would not have come together without her,” said Christopher. Tapestry principal Amanda Chilvers served two years on the new school’s advisory council prior to this appointment. Previously she held several positions at the Atlanta Area School for the Deaf. “We birthed the baby but she’s got to raise it,” Christopher said about Chilvers. “That is our most critical hire. We have amazing faith in her.”

Tapestry Public Charter School Website

Tapestry on Facebook

Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

August 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charter Opponents Overplayed a Bad Hand and Lost Big

Mike Klein

Truthfully, the public charter schools constitutional amendment that Georgia voters approved Tuesday was a modest proposal that sends a message voters in the state will insist on public schools innovation, even small innovation which is where the state is with charter schools.

The big stuff like linking teacher salaries to student academic performance and eliminating teacher tenure was voted on in other states.  We are not ready for those votes in Georgia.

Perception is a significant percentage of reality.  Imagine the national perception that would have been created if Georgia became the first state to vote against a constitutional amendment that sought to expand public charter school options for parents.

The amendment prevailed with 58 percent and a margin of some 625,000 votes.  It handily won all the major population counties surrounding Atlanta and it carried Gwinnett County by 75,000 votes.  The Gwinnett school board was the leading opponent and significantly financed a costly lawsuit that overturned the previous state charter school commission.

How did this victory happen?  There is no single answer; there are many.  Proponents made their argument that parental choice for children should be paramount.  Opponents also built a case around children but in their scenario children left behind in traditional schools would see their futures compromised by for-profit education companies that were taking the money.

Both sides emphasized local control.  Proponents contended parental choice was the ultimate local control.  Opponents counter-punched that the state Supreme Court granted exclusive control to local school boards, even though that language is nowhere in the state constitution.

Opponents took aim at a state commission that would consider petitions after they were denied by local boards.  Its members were portrayed as unaccountable.  Proponents overcame the perception that the commission would become a multi-headed monster.  Proponents argued and they were right that the commission would be a legitimate appellate process.

Opponents failed to sell their financial model argument with the voters.  Last spring opponents in the General Assembly insisted no local property tax dollars should be allowed to fund new state-approved charter schools.  They insisted that local property tax dollars should not follow students to a state charter school; those dollars should remain with the traditional school district.

Legislation that created the public charters schools constitutional amendment had no chance to pass without that compromise, so it happened.  Proponents then worked out a formula in which new state-approved charters would receive slightly more per pupil state support than traditional public schools.  Slightly was the key word; it was a bit more, not a lot, just a bit and if those new charter schools were a district, they would be the third lowest funded school district in Georgia.

Opponents thought they saw the opening for a new strategy.  Now they argued it was unfair that state-approved public charter schools would receive more per pupil funding than traditional public schools.  Proponents built their position around an explanation about the relationship between local property tax dollars and per pupil state funding.  Apparently that worked.

Opponents introduced so many numbers into the conversation that it became nearly impossible for any regular person to sort them out.  They argued that new state-approved public charter schools were a threat that could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, take your pick.  That argument also did not stick with voters.

Opponents continuously argued state budget cuts over several years forced local districts to furlough teachers and trim school days from the calendar.  State budget cuts at any dollar level do not automatically require schools to adjust their calendars.  There are some formulas in play – too complex to describe here – but suffice it to say, local boards control school calendars.

Opponents pointed to the number of school systems that converted to charter status as proof that local boards will create charters.  But they stopped short of explaining that when public school systems convert to charter status they immediately become eligible for additional state financial aid that can be millions of dollars per district.  This argument also fell short.

Opponents won the media war.  Most media bought the opposition argument that the charter schools amendment would expand state government, create a dual or second state school system and cause a very costly duplication of state services at a time when schools were being asked to suffer from reduced funding.  Most voters did not agree with most media.

Ultimately, opponents decided their best path was to portray themselves as victims.  They pushed a strategy that local public schools were being compromised but proponents prevailed with a strategy that parental choice was the ultimate local control.  At the end opponents said state-approved charters would re-segregate Georgia schools.  That was a low point in the dialogue.  Minority families have clearly benefited from charter schools.

Truthfully, there is no national debate about the future of public charter schools.  Twenty years ago there was not even one anywhere in the United States.  Today there are more than 5,600.  That conversation is over.  The President of the United States, both major political parties and many education innovators are firmly in the corner of expanded public charter school options.

Truthfully, Georgia is still in the early days of fashioning its public charter schools strategy.  Incidentally, while you are reading this another 52 students will decide to drop out of Georgia public schools, as 19,250 do each year.  There is no intent here to suggest charters could save them all, but something needs to save them and time has been running out for a very long time.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

November 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Democrats Hooks, Thompson Led Charter Bill Across Senate Finish Line

Mike Klein

Senate Democrats intent on defeating a charter schools constitutional amendment vilified the legislation Monday afternoon.  Then four of their own including the Senate’s two longest serving members crossed the charter schools political divide to assure that Georgia voters will decide whether the state shall be allowed to approve charter schools when they vote in November.

George Hooks of Americus and Steve Thompson of Marietta have been in the Senate since 1991. They came to Atlanta as House freshmen ten years earlier.  Together they have walked those State Capitol corridors and heard thousands of speeches for some 60 combined years.

Monday afternoon Hooks and Thompson helped provide the difference in a charter schools bill vote that one day might be considered historic.  With 38 votes needed for two-thirds passage, Hooks and Thompson voted with the Republican majority.  They provided forceful political cover on a contentious issue.  The final vote was 40-to-16 with four Democrats in support.

Senator George Hooks

For Hooks, it was a personal decision.  The Sumter County schools that he attended as a youth and where his daughter now teaches first grade are in chaos and might lose their accreditation. Proclaiming that “My local people come first,” Hooks launched into a powerful oratory:

“I’m going to tell you one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever been through in my life was meeting with 128 mamas to talk about their children, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.  They are on the verge of catastrophe.  They have no faith, no confidence in our local school board,” Hooks told the quiet Senate.  “Maybe they are wrong but that’s the fact.

“If somebody has the power to take over that dysfunctional school board I will not stand in their way,” Hooks vowed.  “What they want is a state-chartered school system.  I am not going to face a tear-stained mama fighting to protect her child again.”  Shortly thereafter he concluded, “God bless each of you.  Vote your personal conscience.”

Thompson listened as three other Democrats spoke against the bill.  Sen. Vincent Fort called the legislation a “blatant corruption of power” that “trotted out” school children as “pawns to pad the pockets of for-profit management companies and real estate deals” supported by a “Herculean” lobbying effort that, Fort told the Senate, was “drenched in money mongering.”

Then Thompson – who once served as the Democratic majority floor leader – rose in defense of the bill.  “I went through one session when the public thought they didn’t get a chance to vote.  I don’t want to do that again because in the final analysis what some of you folks are forgetting is (Georgians) get to vote on this and debate it all summer and if they don’t like it they can make it go away,” Thompson said.

Senator Steve Thompson

“The other argument I hear that doesn’t make any sense (is) you don’t need to do this, you don’t have to do it.  Well, if you didn’t do it this way the public wouldn’t get to have their voices heard and vote on it.  Think of that.  I’m always going to be for public education.”

Thompson said he was assured by Governor Nathan Deal “that he is going to make it a priority that rural schools are not hurt and that some of these innovations will take effect in rural areas … I am not going to be accused of tying the hands of this administration when it wants to try innovation, or this General Assembly.  That’s where I’m at.  I’m going to embrace it because if you get afraid to change you become dust sitting in a car somewhere in a town where tumbleweed is rolling by you.”

All 36 Republicans voted yes. Hooks and Thompson were joined by Democrats Hardie Davis and Curt Thompson.  Democrats who worked against passage also offered two amendments that were both defeated.  One amendment would have rewritten the ballot question.  The other tried to ban for-profit education companies from doing business in Georgia.

Georgia Charter Schools Association CEO Tony Roberts singled out Governor Deal for his support since the unexpected Supreme Court opinion last May that declared the Georgia Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional.  The Governor approved several million dollars this year and next fall to make sure former charter commission schools will remain open.  He also named the constitutional amendment as one of his highest legislative priorities.

Asked about November, Roberts said, “The next strategy is how to keep the message ringing clear and true about what this will do.  There is going to be a lot of competing noise (around) the Presidential election.”  The ballot referendum needs a simple majority for November passage, a lower bar than the hurdle it just passed in the House and Senate.

“We’re tickled to death,” Roberts said.

 (Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 20, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Charter School Kids: Boxed Into a Smaller Box

Mike Klein

MACON – Georgia children who attend charter public schools are typically boxed into smaller facilities that have inadequate library, science, art, music, cafeteria and physical education resources compared to traditional public schools.  That is the conclusion of a six-month study released last week during the Georgia Charter Schools Association ninth annual conference.

“Charter schools are in a facilities crisis,” GCSA President and CEO Tony Roberts told the Public Policy Foundation.  “The only way to alleviate that is for them to receive per pupil funding for facilities so they can afford to lease or buy facilities.”  Georgia start-up charter public schools do not receive facilities funds. Traditional public schools receive facility funds by several means.

Georgia instituted competitive public schools facilities funding 11 years ago and by law charter schools are eligible for E-SPLOST – education special local option sales tax – dollars but GCSA’s report said, “…the dividends from these programs have, thus far, been very limited.”

The GCSA report – “Shortchanged Charters: How Funding Disparities Hurt Georgia’s Charter Schools” – was scheduled for release in May but a decision was made to hold the report when the state Supreme Court declared the charter schools commission was unconstitutional.

The report was compiled by GCSA in partnership with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Thirty-seven independent start-up charter schools participated in research conducted between October and December of last year.

“We sent people on site so it wasn’t just a fill in the blanks thing,” Roberts said.  “We measured the size of the rooms. We saw if they had gyms or physical education facilities.  We were able to see if they had a cafeteria or not, how the children were eating if there was no food facility.”

The main finding concludes, “Charter schools are the only public schools in the state of Georgia forced to spend operating revenue on facilities.”  GCSA said, “Only 17 percent of state grant funding requested by charter schools was awarded for fiscal years 2008 through 2010.”   Just one among 37 charter schools said it had received E-SPLOST funds to assist with facilities.

Disparity was especially evident in cafeteria and physical education resources.  GCSA said 46 percent of Georgia charter school students qualify for free and reduced priced meals served at school, but just 38.9 percent of schools have proper facilities that meet federal standards.  Fifty-eight percent of charters said the school lunchroom does double duty as a gymnasium.

State law requires that public school districts should make unused facilities available to charter schools.  GCSA said, “…only 25 percent of charter schools have been able to gain access to unused space.  Of the remaining schools, one-third report unused district facilities nearby.  While the majority of these charter schools have asked permission to access unused district facilities, not one request has been granted to date.”

The report stated, “Families who choose to attend the public school that best fits their children’s educational needs should not have to do so at the expense of opportunities for participating in athletics, art, music or other programs that provide students with a well-rounded education.”

GCSA will use the report to foster consensus to fund charter school facilities with dedicated dollars that are not part of annual operating budgets.  Georgia had 74,000 charter school students last year.  That is about four percent of the statewide K-12 public school enrollment.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment