Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On Friday the DeKalb County School System was put on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. SACS parent organization, AdvancED, issued a report blasting the governance by DeKalb’s school board, with president Mark Elgart telling reporters “This is not a governing body. What it is is nine individuals who have political interests who are focused on ensuring that those political interests are managed by the staff in accordance to their requests. They fail at many levels to govern effectively.”
The downgrade to probation status by SACS puts DeKalb in jeopardy of losing its accreditation over the next year if significant changes in governance are not made. The City of Atlanta schools spent much of 2011 under probation as well. Clayton County, to DeKalb’s south, lost its accreditation in 2008. While accreditation was restored in 2011, Clayton also recently was sent a warning letter by SACS, indicating that its troubles are not necessarily over.
DeKalb is the largest of the three troubled systems and the third largest school system in the state, serving just under 100,000 students. According to DeKalb School’s website, 88% of the student population is non-white.
The geography of the three neighboring school systems which have received much attention from SACS makes it difficult to ignore the racial component in dealing with the politics of the situation. A law enacted in 2011 in response to the Clayton loss of accreditation requires the State School Board to hold a hearing within 30 days to determine if the board should be replaced. They will deliver a recommendation to Governor Deal, who would decide if the board should be replaced. The Governor and State School Superintendent are white Republicans. DeKalb represents an African American population which is heavily Democratic.
The politics of the situation are delicate to say the least. In Atlanta, the Governor worked hand in hand with Democratic Mayor Kasim Reed to present a united political front across racial and partisan lines. It remains to be seen if a similar coalition can be developed to pressure the DeKalb board to change.
Delicate, however, does not mean there is not political will within the counties affected to fix problems of governance within their school systems. One of the biggest surprises of the November elections in Georgia was how the Charter Schools Amendment was passed. While much of the attention (and handwringing) was focused on suburban Atlanta counties dominated by Tea Party groups, the Amendment was largely won by capturing the rank and file African American vote.
71% of Clayton County voters approved of the Charter School Amendment. 64% of DeKalb voters did the same. While many leaders opposed the measure, voters seem to understand what SACS is becoming increasingly concerned with in Georgia schools. School boards are increasingly focused on internal political battles and self-serving agendas and are focused less and less on delivering a quality education for the student populations which they serve.
The problems illustrated with DeKalb’s school board put a bookend to 2012’s focus on education and school boards at the local level. The first major agenda item tackled by the Georgia General Assembly this year was debate and eventual passage of the Charter School Amendment. There was much debate from late summer into fall over the proper level of “local control” with respect to governance and establishment of charter schools.
Ultimately, 59% of Georgians decided there needs to be an alternative. School choice is once again a reality in Georgia for families who wish to chart an educational path other than what their local board of education is willing to offer.
There remain many areas of Georgia with solid school systems and little appetite for Charter Schools. It’s quite telling, however, that the systems with problems of board governance were the areas which voted most in favor of another option. In November, school choice was an issue that had no color barrier.