Today’s Courier Herald Column:
On Thursday morning, the State board of Education is scheduled to meet to discuss the fate of the current DeKalb County school board. The state board will consider whether the local board, governing a school system that seems likely to lose its accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, should be removed and replaced. A law passed in 2011 makes this an option that wasn’t available when neighboring Clayton County lost its accreditation in 2008.
The City of Atlanta school system experienced a similar fate recently, but the Governor received significant support for change from Mayor Kasim Reid to help facilitate change at the local level. Optics – the new code word for racial politics – were key. It is challenging for a white Republican governor to replace a duly elected school board in a heavily democratic jurisdiction with a high concentration of black voters.
The Mayor’s involvement with the Atlanta situation helped avoid the inherent racial challenges of the situation. It also helped the state avoid the worse optics of having the school system which shares the name of the state’s economic engine declared a failure.
The situation in DeKalb does not appear to have the same level of support from local leaders. Quite the contrary, on Tuesday the DeKalb County school board filed a lawsuit seeking to block the State Board of Education from holding Thursday’s hearing. The stakes have officially been raised over the governance of the 3rd largest school system in Georgia which is also the 27th largest system in the nation. The fate of the education of roughly 100,000 Georgia students hangs in the balance.
The ability of DeKalb to retain accreditation and its students to graduate with diplomas that are relevant is a higher priority than the optics involved in the long term political consequences. Yet, it is those consequences and the opportunities they represent for long term buy in of any short term fixes that must be factored in to any solution.
One clue that there will be local buy in if state intervention is handled appropriately is last fall’s vote on charter schools. DeKalb County voters approved of the measure with 64% of the vote. Just shy of two thirds of the county’s population signaled that they were in favor of alternative routes to educating their children than the local school board.
AJC Columnist Kyle Wingfield takes the argument a step further by suggesting in a recent column that school choice may in fact be a way for Republicans to address demographic problems by reaching out to minority voters who currently feel they do not have access to quality education for their children. While there is merit to the argument, the solutions will not come easy.
As actions are taken to address the situation in DeKalb (as well as another round of accreditation issues in Clayton) the state must be mindful of a “you break it, you bought it” mentality. If Republicans wish to improve their standing with the local communities over this issue, the actions cannot be seen as punitive nor as short term quick fixes designed to get long term systematic problems out of the front page headlines.
Once the concept of local control is usurped, the state effectively co-owns the problem. It therefore will equally share in the long term outcome – good or bad.
Georgia has long been ranked near the bottom of many education statistics, yet the state averages do not tell the whole story of some excellent systems and programs mixed amid many others whose performance is unacceptable. The President himself was here last week to tout one program that works as a national model.
One of the ways to finally move Georgia’s rankings is to select some of the worst performing systems and target them for intense scrutiny of what can and should be done to turn things around. Solutions will not come easy, as many of the underlying problems have as much to do with the socioeconomic makeup of the students as it does from what occurs within the classrooms.
Yet still, with the challenge comes great opportunity. It is not a time to let superficial optics trump the needs and responsibilities of the state.