Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Almost 40 years ago, I enrolled in Hood Avenue Elementary School in Fayetteville, as my two older sisters had done before me as they entered the first grade. I was in Mrs. Darden’s class, as my middle sister had also been.
Fayette County Schools were relatively small then, though they continued to grow over the twelve years I spent between first grade and high school. It remained largely the kind of place where school teachers and administrators were interwoven as the fabric of the community. Parents knew teachers. Administrators knew their students. We didn’t deride the school system as “government schools”. It was public education, and it was a main reason that Fayette County grew almost ten-fold during my lifetime.
I am first and foremost a product of my parent’s upbringing, but as far as my education goes, I am a product of public schools. They were far from perfect, but no system covering such a disparate population with differing needs will be. They were consistently good, and occasionally great.
My political activities in politics have also frequently been around education. I ran against an incumbent state senator in 2000 largely because he voted for Governor Roy Barnes education reform plan. It violated many principles of local control, and took money away from the taxpayers of my county and the school system we viewed with so much pride.
During this race, I was quite close to many members of the educational establishment of all three counties within the district. While I didn’t win, general opposition to the incumbent’s vote to strip local control from the counties was a central theme that ultimately led to his defeat.
I say all this to be very clear. I am for local control. I value public schools and the increasingly more challenging mission we ask them to perform. I still owe much to the teachers and administrators that maintained an educational system that provided me an education to which I would otherwise have had no access.
Despite that declaration, I support the state charter school amendment on this November’s ballot.
The concept of local control doesn’t mean or imply that a county is a magical concept that must be enshrined as the perfect form of government, not to be questioned. As we’ve seen with T-SPLOST, sometimes the unit of government is too small to effectively coordinate a plan with the impact needed for all citizens. Likewise, local governments do not plan national defense.
The concept of local control is that decisions should be made the closest to the people that are affected by the hand of government. It is an important part of having government for the people, by the people.
While the county (or city) is often the closest form of government to the people, counties differ greatly in size and demographics. Fulton County is rapidly approaching one million people. Gwinnett has well over three-quarters of a million. DeKalb and Cobb are closing in on 700,000. Yet Georgia has 32 counties with less than 10,000 people.
It is hard to imagine that the school boards of Georgia’s largest 4 counties are as “local” as Georgia’s smallest 32. Likewise, it is equally possible to see that the smallest counties may lack the resources to provide the same opportunities for students in larger or more affluent systems.
Parental involvement is often cited as the greatest determinant in student success. I remain extremely blessed that my parents spent a lot of time with not only me and my sisters for our education, but with our teachers and administrators. For us, the system worked.
For parents who face bureaucratic walls and no choices but a non-responsive, failing school, there should be more options more “local” than a one size fits all school board. That appeal’s process can come from a state charter schools commission. Not “another level of bureaucracy” as critics attempt to paint it, but a volunteer appointed board that can grant charters to schools which can demonstrate a plan which involves parental commitment, educational rigor, and a reasonable financial plan.
Charter schools keep public money within the public domain. They are not vouchers that take public money and give to existing (or newly created) exclusionary private schools. Instead, they reallocate state (not local) funds based on the needs and desires of committed parents. Parents who are willing to put their skin in the game to ensure their children get the best education possible.
I was lucky. I had the opportunity to spend 12 years in the best public schools Georgia had to offer. Charter school availability wouldn’t have affected my education much if at all. Many of Georgia’s most vulnerable are not so lucky. Charter schools give them a much better chance at some luck.