One of the nation’s best schools may have to pack up its chalkboards and lock its doors come June because of a fight that would appear to concern money. But the bottom-line problem with the Fulton County school board’s refusal Tuesday to grant an extension of the contract for the Fulton Science Academy isn’t really the acclaimed charter school’s bottom line.
It’s this: While adults argue about the length of the contract for one particular school, the worst schools throughout Georgia have perpetual contracts with scant chance of ever losing them due to poor performance, fiscal mismanagement, cheating scandals — you name it.
Like a lot of big school systems, Fulton has some schools that are stars, and others that are so pitiful, you’d be forgiven for thinking you can’t spell education without “dud.”
Four of Fulton’s 23 middle schools, including Fulton Science Academy, ranked in the top 10 statewide for standardized test scores, according to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s 2010 Report Card for Parents. But four others were on the wrong end of the spectrum, landing in the lower fifth of those same rankings. Two of them failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), determined by the federal No Child Left Behind law, four times since 2007.
Yet, there is no debate about shutting down the underperforming schools — one of which is even a charter school and should be easier to close. Instead, the only school that faces closure is Fulton Science Academy, which was designated this year as a national Blue Ribbon School of Excellence.
Nor is there serious debate about shutting down any of the 44 Atlanta schools where teachers and principals were found to have cheated to make sure students passed the state’s standardized test. Ditto for Dougherty County in south Georgia, where just this week state investigators announced similar test cheating took place at 11 schools.
Last year, more than one in four schools in Georgia failed to meet the federal standard. The state’s reaction was to seek a waiver from No Child Left Behind. That could be a boon if it allows for more detailed and nuanced measurement of students’ progress and teachers’ effectiveness — or a farce if it merely leads to protecting schools and teachers that perform poorly.
Even if the state takes the high road, it’s unlikely any of the laggard schools will be closed to make way for better options for students. Compare that to the record for charter schools. The Center for Education Reform reports that, nationwide since 1992, about 15 percent of charter schools have been shut down, for a variety of reasons.
You will never see that kind of accountability among traditional public schools.
And, yes, charter schools are public schools: They’re publicly funded and are governed ultimately by public institutions. Which brings us to a point that will become very important in less than three weeks when the General Assembly reconvenes.
Ever since the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision last spring overturning the state’s strongest charter-schools law, there’s been much talk but few specifics about how the Legislature might set things right again.
The belief among many, including yours truly, is that a constitutional amendment is necessary if the state is to get back in the business of approving charter schools. However, almost as many people share the fear that it’s unrealistic to think two-thirds of legislators will sign onto such a measure. Both Speaker David Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, in separate interviews with me during the past few months, questioned the odds of success for a charter-schools constitutional amendment.
I have my doubts about the political feasibility, too. But there could be no better argument for choice measures than the cases of cheating in Atlanta and Dougherty County, and the recent school-board fights over charter contracts in Fulton and Gwinnett.
If not now, when?
– By Kyle Wingfield