At the same time that I was covering a lottery for 140 spots in a new charter school in DeKalb Friday, the system’s superintendent was announcing plans to shut down four schools with enrollments under 300 students to cope with the $88 million deficit. I thought that this would puzzle DeKalb taxpayers who would read that the system was closing four elementary schools because they were too small, while elsewhere in the county plans were marching forward for a school of only 140 kids. I asked the state’s overseer of charter schools about it and the DOE’s Andrew Broy sent me this reply
I suppose it depends on how one views the two situations. The revenue shortage is caused mainly by a decrease in qbe funds at the state level, which in turn was caused by a decrease in sales tax revenue and payroll tax collections. The desire for charter school options in South DeKalb County was caused, apparently, by members of the community feeling that the local public school options were not satisfactory, whatever the cause.
The tricky thing w/ school funding (and I was a school funding litigator for more than 5 years) is that there is very little relationship b/t per pupil expenditures and student academic attainment. Even when states dramatically increase funding, they very rarely see any achievement bump (see: new jersey, wyoming, etc — NB: newark now spends north of 20K per year per pupil, excluding facilities costs and has seen a decrease in achievement over the past five years (at the same time funding increased by 30 percent in constant dollars).
That’s because, when funds are increased, they overwhelmingly go to fund one of two initiatives: across the board salary increases for the existing teacher corps or undifferentiated class size reduction. Just think: if qbe was fully funded this year, what would happen: salaries would bump up a bit (no furloughs) and districts wouldn’t be requesting class size waivers. I simply don’t think that is the most effective way to use enhanced revenues — and it certainly isn’t if we want to improve student performance.
The problem is that we rarely discuss how we spend the money available for our public schools. Instead, we just assume that more or less money will have some predicted outcome, when the evidence simply isn’t there. Why can’t we really talk about teacher quality and teacher distribution among schools? Why do we continue to incent teachers to get masters degrees that have no impact on student learning (and which have created a cottage industry for dubious institutions granting dubious masters degrees online)? Why can’t we talk about the original purpose of equalization and whether the current formula is fulfilling that mission? Why can’t we realize that there is no magic in a charter, but that there is magic in creating schools that can be autonomous, can allocate resources as a matter of right, can hire great teachers without worrying much about seniority rights (and can fire a teacher when, out of 30 hires, the principal makes a mistake), and are held strictly accountable for outcomes.
Maureen, the fact that so many of us who have a passion for student opportunity, racial equality, and the creation of great schools have migrated to the charter sector is not because we believe free market theories of public schooling or want to criticize traditional public schools: it’s because we got tired of the lack of urgency demonstrated by so many stakeholders and the incrementalism that pervades school policy discussions. We have an achievement gap challenge we need to address immediately and it just so happens that the best schools serving inner-city children across the country are charter schools. We might even ask ourself why, over the past 20 years, the achievement gap b/t black males and black females has increased more than the gap between black students and white students generally.
I simply want to work more on the things I think really matter in creating great schools./blockquote>
Here is what I wrote about the lottery and charter schools for my Monday education column for the print paper.
As the final name was drawn in a lottery Friday for kindergarten slots at the new Avondale charter school, Camille Robinson leaned forward. Fifty-nine slots of 60 had been filled and she had yet to hear her 4-year-old son’s name.
“Calin Robinson,” announced the Museum School of Avondale Estates principal Katherine Kelbaugh, producing a gasp of relief from Robinson who was considering paying tuition to send her only child to a neighboring system.
“My nerves were shot,” she said, after the lottery. “But I am so thrilled.”
Many parents in her community share her excitement at the prospect of a boutique alternative to the area’s large public schools. Approved by a new state commission two months ago, the Museum School of Avondale Estates will open in August with 140 students and a curriculum built on hands-on learning and museum field trips. It’s open to DeKalb students zoned for Avondale and Midway elementary schools.
The yearning of parents for smaller, neighborhood schools with innovative approaches is fueling the charter school movement in Georgia, a movement that has become more adversarial since the state set up a commission to overrule local school boards and approve charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded schools which, in exchange for expanded accountability, operate with more freedom and far fewer regulations. Georgia only has 113 charter schools, a by-product of former state laws that made school boards the gatekeepers.
Not surprisingly, some school boards responded with overt hostility to charters, which led to the current law enabling charter applicants to pitch their case to an appointed state commission.
No one gives up power or money without a fight, and that’s why several systems, including DeKalb, have filed a lawsuit in rebellion against what they consider the illegal overreach of the state.
In explaining its decision to join the lawsuit, the DeKalb school board released a statement noting that it has not been resistant to charter schools. “What the state has done with the state Charter Schools Commission Act is not only unconstitutional and inequitable, but it threatens the integrity of the existing statewide system for funding public education,” said the board.
The tensions have escalated in the current budget crunch as desperate systems are closing schools at the same time that the Charter Schools Commission is approving them.
For example, while the Museum School was picking names out of a bag for its 140 slots, DeKalb Superintendent Crawford Lewis was a few miles away announcing plans to close four schools with enrollments of less than 300 students.
Andrew Broy, who oversees charter schools for the state Department of Education, does not believe charter schools are a threat to public schools. In fact, he thinks they are an asset because they bring families back to public education fold.
“To get more students back in public education is a net benefit,’ he said.
And as the Museum School lottery attests, they are coming back. With videotape running and a lawyer on hand to certify the results, the Museum School lottery was as anticipated as a Powerball drawing by the 40 parents in the room.
Indeed, for the parents whose children won seats, the prize probably felt like a million dollars.
Many parents in Avondale Estates — an historic, planned community near Decatur — send their children to intown private schools, most of which cost $12,000 a year and up. (That may be why four of the seven founding board members behind the Museum School have twins; they are facing twice the costs.)
While there is a public elementary school within walking distance, Avondale Elementary has its challenges, including an enrollment of 422 students, of whom 90 percent are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced lunches and 17 percent have limited English proficiency. Still, the school has made adequate yearly progress in academic performance and attendance.
But in making its case to the state commission, the Museum School parents wrote, “Student achievement results at the existing public elementary school for our community are unacceptable. For years, concerned families have tried to improve the situation at the public school in our area, and while these efforts did not lead to significant positive changes in student achievement, they did lead to an understanding of the factors that create a high-quality educational experience.
“Now, more than ever, we believe that a school must be strongly tied to its community to be successful, and we have that community support.”