State Must Make Long Term Commitment To Troubled School Systems

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.


  1. Greg S says:

    The problem is that Georgia elects school boards! Can you imagine any corporation with a budget the size of Gwinnett, Cobb, Atlanta and Dekalb selecting a board by the popular votes of employees? What exactly are the qualifications to be elected to a school board? Do you need a high school diploma? Are you required to have a background in business or eduction? No, you just need to be a better politican than the next guy (gal).

    What a stupid way pick the people in whose hands we entrust the education of our children.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      Excellent point, but who exactly would be the best party to pick a schoolboard? A dysfunctional DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, a Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners under investigation for allegations of corruption and shady land deals?

      • Greg S says:

        It less important who selects them than having a criteria for selection. The state must set out a lists of basic qualifications for being a member of a school board. If the qualifications are crafted tightly enough and the terms are limited and staggered, serving on a board would not be a “political plum” or “stepping stone” to higher office. Right now, we have a system that is purely political in nature and, in many instances, the board are occupied by petty people more interested in weilding power than they are in good governance. This needs to stop!

        We’re investing our tax money in a failed system that needs to be overhauled from the top down…and its not just in Dekalb, Clayco and Atlanta. Gwinnnett County BOE spent milllions of tax dollars for overpriced property over many years and no one has been held accountable.

  2. elfiii says:

    I don’t see how the state could do much worse in Dekalb than the local school board. They are a miserable dysfunctional lot.

    As far as “optics” go it shouldn’t matter about the race of the elected officials or the electorate. If you are failing to meet the metrics, you are a failure. Plain and simple. Let the race card be played.

  3. Dave Bearse says:

    Truth be told, the dysfunctional DeKalb Board in some measure reflects DeKalb parents excessively focusing on looking out for their own irrespective of adverse effects on the District as a whole. Last year’s fiasco process of seeking to change attendance zones and shutter small under-utilized schools was a recent illustration, but the Board caving to parental influence to the detriment of the District as a whole has been around for more than a decade.

    I reside in the attendance zone of a 50 year old elementary school building serving 700+ students on a postage stamp size lot that has had 6-15 trailers on-site since before I moved to the area in the 1990’s. (Currently about a dzoen on site.) The batch of trailers on the front side of the school look as if they should be considered for condemnation. A dozen plus vehicles park on the front lawn, er rather front mudhole, every day since there’s inadequate parking. The school is surrounded by residences and over a mile from the nearest arterial road, but serves as a major school bus storage facility.

    The relatively squalid conditions less than 4 miles from a new Dunwoody ES are easily explained however. 90% of the school’s pupils are immigrants or first generation Americans. Oh, and of course the attendance zone wasn’t proposed to be changed last year. Wouldn’t want any poor immigrants being moved out of moldy trailers to new Dunwoody schools.

    • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

      There’s been talk of Dunwoody trying to break-off from DeKalb to form its own municipal school district.

        • The Last Democrat in Georgia says:

          With the way that the law is setup, I know. But there has also been same type of talk going around in the Tucker, Chamblee and Druid Hills clusters and with what has been going on in the central office recently, who could blame them?

          • elfiii says:

            It’s not going to happen in Chamblee. We got a brand new middle school and they are in the process of rebuilding Chamblee HS which happens to be a magnet school. Any talk about a Chamblee city school system is just hot air.

    • Dave Bearse says:

      Just to be clear, I cited an example involing Dunwoody because it was close to home and therefore the most familiar. The same type of thing, narrow focus and demands by parents concerning the schools to be attended by their children to the detriment of the district at large, is occuring in south DeKalb as well. (Indeed the recent school closures that I referred to were largely in south DeKalb.)

      The concept may apply in school choice too. Yes to care and involvement in the choosen school, but can’t care less about education in the broader community.

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