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.)
“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.”
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.)
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.)
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.
Elective 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.”
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.”
Wednesday: THINC College and Career Academy in Troup County
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
Louisiana Court Rejects Funding Formula; Texas Lawmakers Reject Choice
This week’s Louisiana Supreme Court opinion that struck down a school choice funding formula finds the usual suspects who want to prevent families from using their tax-paid dollars to send their children to the schools of their choice. As we saw in Georgia, people who stand in opposition to expanded school choice believe the money belongs to them, which is a big brother knows best mentality.
Some Louisiana background: The state was in education chaos before Hurricane Katrina swept through eight years ago. The unanticipated blessing from that life changing hurricane was that it gave the state, communities and families an opportunity to rebuild horrible school systems, notably in New Orleans.
Especially during current Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure Louisiana has started to reinvent education with the idea that when you start with a clean slate, you might improve over what was there earlier.
This, of course, is a free market education idea so it stands to reason that people who want to continue the big-brother-knows-best mentality would be none too pleased at bolder and fresher ideas. One among several ideas was Jindal’s creation of a voucher scholarship program that provided 5,000 low income students the opportunity for expanded school choice somewhere other than their local brick-and-mortar neighborhood school. Louisiana Scholarship Program enrollment for next fall would be 8,000 students or about two-thirds of all pupils who applied.
You can guess who got uptight and went to court; that would be the associations that represent Louisiana teachers and public school system boards of education. These are the same kinds of organizations that went to court in Georgia after the 2008 General Assembly created a path and the funding formula for expanded charter school options. In Georgia, you can throw in the very vocal association for state superintendents that fought furiously to overturn the state law.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled against the creation of a charter schools alternate authorizer. The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled against the vouchers funding formula without making a comment on school choice proper, but the effect unless somehow remedied would be to reduce options for families. Georgia lost its leadership position on school choice but fortunately last November voters here sent a different message when they reinstated the idea of an alternate authorizer, meaning a new State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia that began its work this spring.
Louisiana’s Governor – who many believe has White House aspirations – issued a statement that tried to assure families the state budget will find the money to keep choice alive although Jindal’s initial statement did not provide any additional detail about how to make that possible.
School choice – the bigger idea of it at all – is no longer in question. Whatever you think about the current White House administration, the President, the Department of Education and the Republican and Democratic national party platforms are all on board with school choice. There are still those trying to erect roadblocks and overall, school choice work certainly is not done.
The appetite for new aggressive school choice legislation was limited during this year’s Georgia General Assembly. Most wind went out of the sails after last year’s bitterly contested effort that resulted in the constitutional amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved last November. An enhanced tax credit scholarship bill passed, as did a clean-up of the existing special needs scholarship. A “parent trigger bill” that would allow parents or school personnel the right to convert failing traditional public schools to charter schools passed the House.
What legislatures and state courts are doing with school choice across the country is a muddle. School choice advocates in Texas cannot get their bills through the House which rejected a bill last month. This legislative recalcitrance goes against the grain of Texans. A Texas Public Policy Foundation study published last week said two-thirds of Texans favor the creation of statewide education scholarships and 72 percent favor business tax credits for private schools.
Contrast the Louisiana and Georgia judicial experiences with Indiana where the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously – the vote was 5-0 – in April that public tax dollars could be used to fund private school tuition. The Louisiana Supreme Court vote was nearly unanimous – 6-1 to strike down using public tax dollars to fund private school tuition in a vouchers program.
Families must be allowed to use their tax-paid dollars to send their children to the schools of their choice. Not the government’s choice, not the choice of school boards or unions that represent teachers. It is their choice, the folks who actually paid the tax dollars. Keep Choice Alive!
(Click here to read the new Friedman Foundation analysis “A Win-Win Solution — The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” that examines the impact on students and communities. Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
This summer and fall you will repeatedly hear that approving a charter schools constitutional amendment would steal resources from traditional Georgia public schools. The idea is that when any money follows a student to a charter school the students left behind somehow suffer.
This argument seems to apply only when students move to charter schools. You never hear public school systems, their superintendents or school board members complain when students move from one public school system to another. Apparently financial harm is a one-way street.
The premise that students moving to charter schools will cause financial quakes in traditional school systems also suggests we should accept another premise that public school systems are so inflexible they cannot adjust their fixed and variable costs and still produce quality learning.
For instance, is teacher employment a fixed or variable cost? It is a fixed cost if you believe the school district cannot or will not adjust how many instructors it needs based on enrollment. It is a variable cost if you believe teachers should increase or decrease based on enrollment.
A new report released nationally by the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice challenges the concept that public school costs are so fixed that they cannot be adjusted up or down. “The Fiscal Effects of School Choice Programs on Public School Districts” breaks down fixed and variable costs for an average public school system in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“If it is true that virtually all costs are fixed then when public schools add students they shouldn’t get extra money because their costs are fixed,” said author Benjamin Scafidi, who is director of the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University.
“I’ve never heard a public school leader say that their costs don’t go up when they add students so they can’t have it both ways, logically. Before this report they did have it both ways.”
Scafidi used 2008-09 federal data from every state to analyze short-run fixed and variable costs. The report lists capital expenditures, interest, administration, operations, maintenance and transportation among short-run fixed costs. Instruction, instructional support, other student support, enterprise operations and food service were placed in the variable cost category.
“The proper way to think about this issue is not whether public school districts have in the past reduced costs when students in large numbers left the district for any reason,” the report says. “The issue is whether they are able to do so.” Any reason is not limited to school choice. It can include economic downturns, such as a major employer moving away from the region.
Scafidi concluded almost two-thirds of public school expense is variable that districts should be able to adjust based on enrollment. In Georgia, he found $11,468 average per pupil cost is almost two-thirds variable ($7,507) and the remainder is fixed ($3,961).
The report asks, “If a significant number of students left a public school district for any reason from one year to the next, is it feasible for the district to reduce the costs of these items commensurate with the decrease in its student population?” Scafidi concluded the answer is, yes, for large and small school districts. He used four Georgia school systems to illustrate.
Atlanta Public Schools reduced teaching staff 6.84% between 2004 and 2010 when the student population declined a similar percentage from 51,315 to 47,944 students. The report notes that the number of administrators increased 19.7% from 395 to 471. This example shows that a large district over time can adjust the variable cost associated with employing teachers.
But can the same be said for a small school district? Wheeler County experienced a 12.1% student population decline between 2004 and 2010 and was able to reduce its teacher staff by 15.6%. Hancock County enrollment dropped 5.3% from 2009 to 2010; the district was flexible enough that it was able to reduce the number of teachers 8.8% and administrators by 18.8%.
“In the first few years of a school choice program in Georgia I think you want to keep the amount of money that follows the child below $7,507 because it is difficult for public schools to reduce their costs more than that when a student leaves,” Scafidi said. “That is the main takeaway.”
The report focuses almost entirely on financial analysis but it does offer this teaching point:
“As public schools lose students via school choice or for any other reason, they have a tremendous opportunity to improve the quality of their schools. When students leave, schools can lay off the least effective teachers. The students who remain would be reallocated to more effective teachers and their academic achievement would increase significantly.”
(The author Dr. Benjamin Scafidi is also former chair of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and he is a Senior Fellow for Education Policy at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
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