UPDATE: Gwinnett County schools have won the 2010 Broad Prize, the highest honor awarded to an urban district.
“Gwinnett County has demonstrated that an unwavering focus across a school system – by every member of the district and the community – can lead to steady student improvement and achievement,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the award. “Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students.”
More than half of Gwinnett’s students are African-American or Hispanic, and half are eligible for subsidized lunches.
For the second year in a row, the Gwinnett County school system has been honored as one of the five best urban districts in the country by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
If Gwinnett goes on to win the top prize, which will be announced today in New York, Gwinnett seniors will share$1 million in college scholarships. That would be an impressive achievement for Gwinnett, particularly in a state where education reform has come so slowly.
It’s too bad, then, that Gwinnett public schools and those who lead them don’t get much respect closer to home.
In 2007, for example, the duly-elected Gwinnett school board decided against granting charter-school status to Ivy Prep, a proposed all-girls middle school and high school in Norcross, in part because it questioned the value of such a school. The state Board of Education then decided to override Gwinnett’s decision, approving creation of Ivy Prep as a state charter school and eventually diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid to the school from Gwinnett public schools.
That was quite a break from tradition in Georgia, where public education has always been delivered by local government, not the state. In fact, the Georgia Supreme Court is now considering whether state officials overstepped their bounds by making such a major change in policy without first seeking voter approval through a constitutional amendment.
The court’s decision is likely to turn on legal arguments and debate over the current wording of the constitution. However, the legal fight could have been avoided altogether if legislators had asked voters to approve the significant shift in philosophy in the first place.
But that’s not going to happen. Rather than put the question to voters directly, state leaders are using a piecemeal, low-key effort to dramatically alter public education in this state without anyone noticing.
Take vouchers. In every state where the question of school vouchers has been put to a vote, the concept has been defeated. So Georgia backers of the proposal have taken an incrementalist approach.
In 2007, the Legislature passed a voucher program limited to special-needs students. In 2008, it came very close to passing a voucher program for students in poor-performing schools, and in 2009 the Senate Education Committee approved a statewide voucher program that would not have required voter approval.
Two years ago, legislators also approved a measure that in effect allows taxpayers to pay their state taxes directly to private schools. For every dollar contributed to a private school scholarship program, a dollar is deducted from your state taxes. Last year, the program diverted $25 million from state coffers to private schools.
And in 2004, Gov. Sonny Perdue tried to weaken a long-standing constitutional provision that bans the use of state money “directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, cult or religious denomination or of any sectarian institution.”
Without the change, Perdue and others claimed, lawsuits were already coming down the pike that would make it illegal for groups such as the Salvation Army, YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs to sign contracts with the state to provide social services.
Opponents, however, claimed that the proposed change was actually intended to allow payment of school vouchers to religious institutions, a charge that Perdue and others denied vehemently.
Fine, opponents said. Amend the resolution to clarify that it doesn’t address vouchers, and we’ll support it. Perdue refused, and the bill died.
Six years later, the Salvation Army and other groups are still contracting with the state, and those trying to whittle away at public education in Georgia still have their carving knives out.