Charter school lottery a win for families, but how about for systems?

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.”

18 comments Add your comment

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wait a minute!

February 20th, 2010
7:19 am

“a curriculum built on hands-on learning and museum field trips”
“The yearning of parents for smaller, neighborhood schools with innovative approaches is fueling the charter school movement in Georgia”

“hands-on learning” — isn’t this another code word for “discovery learning”? I thought parents were fed up with “innovations” — go back to the basics as in good old days?

Write Your Board Members

February 20th, 2010
7:37 am

On Thursday, a group of DeKalb residents were invited to meet with US DOE officials about community engagement in school reform efforts. The meeting facilitator showed a video about a high school in Los Angeles, Locke. The community engaged a non-profit, Green Dot, to take over and reinvent the school.

The point though that I want to share is that the community organizer representing Locke said that Green Dot was much easier to work with than the Los Angeles School District. This is what the Avondale folks found as well. They didn’t come to a charter school easily, rather after pounding their heads against the wall for many years.

When a school leader is seeing a huge turnover in staff, year after year, regardless of what parents are telling system officials that should be a warning sign. When parents are expressing their concerns, on top of the staff turnover, then that is more than a warning sign.

DeKalb had more than a chance to harness the energy of these parents and they blew it. Big time.

JacketFan

February 20th, 2010
11:27 am

Wait – Hands-on learning could be seen as “service learning” as well. Showing children practical applications or “real world” examples of the concepts they are learning is class is a model that more and more institutions of higher learning are leaning towards.

Look at the recent opening of Georgia Perimeter College’s Center for Civic Engagement and Service Learning. Many colleges and universities are developing programs in this vein. Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College recently announced the creation of their new BS/BA program in Rural Studies – a new degree program based in service learning. Students in colleges today are demanding more real world experiences and faculty and administrators are listening. As are organizations and governmental agencies that award education grants. More and more service learning grants are showing up – if schools want to compete for those, they have to revisit how they educate their students.

It will benefit elementary, middle grades and secondary education students for school systems to also start looking at how to implement service learning into their curriculum – a curriculum counter intuitive to the current regimen of standardized test prep. If the school systems don’t pay attention to what colleges are doing (based on what students and professional world are demanding), then those school systems are cheating their students.

David S

February 20th, 2010
11:54 am

Nobody should have to win a lottery for their children to get a good education. That this is what american education has become is just another sign that the system must be dismantled. Nobody has to win a lottery to be able to feed themselves or clothe themselves. There are high cost providers of these goods and quality low cost providers. There are a complete range of options that meet all people’s needs. For those with no means there are wonderful charities that assist with the help of voluntarily provided funds, labor, and goods. So why can’t this same diversity of options exist in the realm of education?

The answer is that there is absolutely NO reason why it cannot. The current government monopoly wastes billions of dollars nationwide that are taken from individuals and businesses to perpetuate a system that offers no real choice, delivers horrible quality, and uses the power of the state through regulations and other tools to undermine the growth of any real competition.

The discussion on this forum shows once again that the government school system and its cheerleaders in the mainstream media have successfully distracted parents and other concerned individuals with pointless discussions about curricula, teaching methods and the like instead of focussing on the real issue that is the overwhelming failure of the current monopoly to deliver a quality education to millions.

In a market based system of education the curricula and teaching methods would be between the service provider and the customer (the parents and children). As we look at ourselves and others we know, we can see differences in how we learn and in what mechanisms of instruction deliver the best results. One could imagine education providers even doing assessments of prospective customers to see what type of system might work best or even offering multiple mechanisms within their system of education.

It is important to realize that the government monopoly is only equipped to deliver things one way – in other words, our way or the highway. Look-say reading, new math, and other failures that have been forced upon the now-deficient american population have all been delivered through the political corruption process, not the market. These were not chosen freely by parents, but by bureaucrats influenced by the very people who profitted from their implementation.

One would never tollerate this kind of thing from those who sell us food, or shelter, or clothing, yet we can agree that these things are even more important than education to our immediate circumstance. We agree that the market delivers these other commodities to us in a far superior manner than the government ever could. We need only look to the scenes of the former Soviet Union with their long bread lines and multiple families living in cramped apartments to see the truth of this. Yet for some reason we feel that education cannot be delivered effectively and affordably by the market – yet that is exactly how it was delivered prior to the imposition of government controls on education at the end of the 19th century and more significantly at the beginning of the 20th. By all measures educational quality has declined at an astronomical rate since government took over. If this same failure were being delivered by government run food distribution or government housing (I think we already know that story), it would not be tollerated. The Russians didn’t even tollerate their government failure in these areas for 100 years, yet we have tollerated government failure in education for way more than that. By the comments routinely seen in this blog, it is obvious that most parents are perfectly content to keep licking the boots of the establishment and begging for some token improvements rather than calling for a system that actually empowers them to be true consumers with the power of the purse that drives the outstanding quality the market delivers for everything else they purchase.

Chas

February 20th, 2010
12:19 pm

It would be a good idea to teach the students a foreign language also so that when they graduate they will be able to fit in to the country where the goverment has out sourced the existing jobs to.

ScienceTeacher671

February 20th, 2010
5:32 pm

“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.”

I still haven’t heard how much of a decrease in payroll tax collections results from furloughing state employees and school employees. Seems sort of like a self-perpetuating cycle to me.

ScienceTeacher671

February 20th, 2010
5:33 pm

@David S: “Nobody should have to win a lottery for their children to get a good education.”

Funny, that’s what the Georgia Constitution, Article VIII, says, I believe.

catlady

February 20th, 2010
5:55 pm

I am a big supporter of much smaller schools. National data shows that students, especially those “at risk”, benefit from smaller schools, more engagement, etc. I taught at a small school (k-7, 230 students) for years, and those students, no different in parental income or education, were disproportionately the high achievers when they went to high school.

However, it is rather sad that the school system says it cannot afford these small schools, but can be overruled so that taxpayer money goes to—yes–a very small (charter) school.

B. Killebrew

February 21st, 2010
1:03 am

catlady, the second paragraph in your post above says it all.

OverlyInvolvedMom

February 21st, 2010
6:17 am

Mr. Broy’s response was exactly what I needed to hear this morning. This should be sent to every educator and ed administrator in the state asap. As an APS parent of two thriving children, this last week of testing drama has sent me over the edge. Up until I read this article I was sold on pulling my children and sending them to private school in the near future. Broy’s comments make me want to put back on my boxing gloves and fight in the trenches for all that I know public school can and should be.

Concerned Teacher

February 21st, 2010
10:06 am

Charter schools and vouchers are draining public schools and leading to their demise. “Cut and run” never improves the core. What is the state department telling those who do not quality for charter schools: you are not worthy of time and money. The real effort and money must go to those who have families and special talents. You who are left will suffer NCLB, ridiculous “unpacked” standards, and the guidance of those who are not real teachers but puppets of the state. Free and appropriate education? For whom?

David S

February 21st, 2010
1:03 pm

ScienceTeacher671 – The GA constitution may say that, and yet the government schools do not provide a good education. So what does that say about putting something down on paper and expecting it to be so. You can pass any law you want and that doesn’t achieve a desired result. Just look at the failed war on drugs. The market delivers what consumers want so long as the government does not interfere except to provide a mechanism for prosecution of fraud or force. Central planning has never worked – ever. Its high time we amended the GA constitution and got rid of the government mandate of “free” education provided by the government and returned to a market based system in which charity (which is what most parents receive now given how little they pay for school costs) takes care of the most needy, and parents take care of the responsibility for selecting and/or providing the education for their children. There are constant complaints about a lack of parental involvement. Why should parents attempt to get involved. They can do nothing in a system that takes their money and gives them no options. Parents care more about the cars they drive and the homes they live in than they do about the education their kids receive simply because they actually have choices and freedom and financial responsibility for those other items.

Constitutions were meant to be amended when necessary. Its high time the changes happen to remove all government involvement in education.

Nikole Allen

February 21st, 2010
6:27 pm

Is there a way to find out what number of students came from Midway’s zone and what number came from Avondale’s zone?

[...] Post) D.C. — Lawmakers to launch bipartisan effort to rewrite NCLB (Washington Post) Ga. — Charter lottery a win for families, but how about for systems? (Atlanta Journal Constitution) Miss. — Facts don’t support charter schools (Mississippi [...]

love charters

February 22nd, 2010
2:37 pm

Love charter schools!! There is much more freedom for educators and administrators. You dont HAVE to put up with students who are discipline problems.

Marney

February 22nd, 2010
9:11 pm

Andrew Broy is a committed, thoughtful and intelligent policy person. I will miss him when he leaves our state.

Love Charters–you can not refuse to take a child that is a discipline problem, you get them in the lottery the same as any others. And the children are still entitled to all the due process/special services/ IEPs/ EIPs and ESOL services that they are due under the law in a traditional school. And all the NCLB testing is still required.

Yes, there is freedom–you get the money you earn and the children that apply. But you can hire and fire people that believe in your mission (they must be Highly Qualified, of coarse)–and you are allowed to design something new, which at times makes all the difference in the world, since the traditional systems are built around 100 year old expectations.

CharterStarter

February 23rd, 2010
3:10 pm

The reason that charters are required to offer lotteries is that there is more demand than available enrollment slots.

The limit on slots is determined by the charter school’s organizers, but it can also be determined by the local district that authorized the school.

The fact that demand exceeds supply at charters should not be lost on authorizers, who should make it easier, not harder, for charters to open. There is no stronger signal than that sent by parents interested in better options for their children. Districts, most of whom are stuck defending a system they feel they must support, are either scared or unable to innovate truly, as Mr. Broy so correctly pointed out.

Charters provide a sort of check and balance on districts. It is taking a generation, but the existence of charters is slowly shifting districts to consider true innovation.