Deal Visit More About Opportunity Than Optics

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Governor Deal spent Friday morning at a public appearance, which isn’t unusual given that he’s campaigning for what appears to be a very close election that will be held in roughly five weeks.  What could be considered unusual is that his location was in Clayton County – not exactly a bastion of Republican votes.  Even more unusual is that the Governor’s partner for the photo op was rap star Ludacris.

Ludacris encouraged the students to do well, noting that “A lot of people will tell you you’re at a disadvantage, but I feel like you’re at an advantage. You have street smarts. But when you add book smarts to that, you’re unstoppable.”

The purpose of the appearance was to highlight the opening of Utopian Academy charter school in Riverdale, just south of the runways of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson airport.  It is an example of a school opening because of the recently passed constitutional amendment allowing for state sponsored charter schools, as Utopian had been denied a charter for three straight years by the Clayton County Board of Education.

It is also evidence that the Governor is keenly aware he is running in a general election in which the voter base is not merely an extension of a Republican primary.  The urban areas in and near Atlanta that have had accreditation issues with their local school boards gave the 2012 state charter school amendment some of its strongest support.  Clayton County voters returned 71% of their votes in favor of the amendment, well above the state’s 59%.

Utopian Academy’s trouble at the local level did not end when the State granted the school’s charter.  Local officials refused to give the school an occupancy permit, which delayed the start of the school year while city and county officials determined what inspections were required.

The students are now well into their school year.  They wear uniforms.  They learn in single gender classrooms.  They have fine arts blended into their daily curriculum.  All different than the traditional public school they would otherwise be attending.  All made possible by the passage of the state charter schools amendment that came at the mid-point of Deal’s first term.

The visit to Utopian gave Deal more than the opportunity to demonstrate support for charter schools as an option for choice to fix failing schools.  It also allowed him to quietly reaffirm the concept that “local control” when it comes to education means decisions are best made by parents, as it’s impossible to get more local than that.

By appearing in Clayton County with Ludacris at his side, Deal also broke through an issue that has become somewhat of a caricature of Republican campaigns in Georgia.  Too many of the images that come from GOP events are dominated by pictures of aging white men.  The images from Riverdale last Friday go well beyond a change in optics.  They instead go to the heart of the Governor’s polices, and his results.

Charter schools are in theory a vehicle to allow any student to choose an alternative to the school assigned by their local board of education.  In reality, they are mostly needed in areas of poverty, where there is a significant overlap to the concentration of underperforming schools.

Children born in areas of poverty often end up becoming too familiar with the criminal justice system – an area Governor Deal has spent three years initiating a series of reforms.  While the GOP base was sold on the savings of $20 Million per year to the state coffers, it should not be lost that the new incarceration rate for African Americans has dropped 20% since his reforms have been implemented.

Governor Deal has spent his first term in office with his record of accomplishments being increased educational opportunities, sentencing reform for minor infractions, and a plan to assist some with criminal records back into the job market.  These aren’t the kinds of topics that provide red meat to a hungry GOP base, but can and should be helpful to a Governor who needs undecided and independent voters to break his way in order to earn a second four years in office.

11 comments

  1. blakeage80 says:

    Are prisoners counted in the unemployment numbers, since they aren’t really looking for work? Could less folks in prison cause those numbers to rise? Or are most people that have been a part of the sentencing reform program counted in the first place? If the last paragraph is true, Gov Deal has contributed to a rise in unemployment numbers by actively trying to put people (that aren’t all that employable) back into the labor market. Darned if you do, darned if you don’t I guess.

  2. Trey A. says:

    Charlie, you’re absolutely right to laud the Governor for his prison reform. It’s the one policy front he unquestionably “got right” in his first term.

    However, charters–especially charters under the new law–are still in the “too early to tell” category. And the results in Georgia have been mixed thus far.

    Also, you made a pretty egregious factual error in your column in your attempt to paint charter schools as better and more reform-minded than public schools (a topic that remains open to debate). Several Clayton County non-charter public schools have long instituted single gender classrooms campus-wide. And most public schools in the district (if not all) require students to wear uniforms and/or adhere to a strict dress code. Also, Clayton County has fine arts magnet schools.

  3. benevolus says:

    Uniforms, different curriculum… these things are not what (I think) charter opponents object to. It is that students somehow get selected for a school. Which is fine as far as it goes- everyone wants parents to be able to do the best for their kids- but it’s only half of the equation. The other half, the part that never gets addressed, is what happens to the kids who are NOT selected. Are we basically turning half our schools into pseudo-prisons, or at least just day-care, with no hope for those students? The so-called “worst” students will end up concentrated in the worst schools.

    We’ve just spent the past 10 years dismantling public housing because the concentrated poverty and crime there was deemed unacceptable, but we are going the opposite direction with students?

    • blakeage80 says:

      So what would be your plan for making every school better all at once, with no enclaves of bad schools anywhere?

      • benevolus says:

        I don’t think there is any mystery as to what it takes. It takes more intervention than we are used to, and it takes competent administration. Both of those probably take more money. We have not shown the will to do either of those things in a widespread way.

        I will also say that the above things are necessary because too many parents don’t care; to them school is little more than day care. And it doesn’t help when so many of our leaders are constantly repeating that ‘the government can’t do anything right” and “teachers unions are evil” and “public school can’t ever be good”. Those are all false, but some parents, who would rather not take any more responsibility than necessary, will see that as an excuse to not have any expectations beyond keeping the kids off the street for a few hours.

        Imagine if leaders instead were to say things like “successful schools require involved parents”, and “we’re going to do our best to make sure school administration is excellent and accountable (and not just after a scandal) at ALL schools”. It has to become more a part of our culture for parents to want and demand excellence from public schools. Instead, our leaders keep trying to find ways to circumvent public schools. But those “other” kids don’t go away. They are still there. Leaving them even further behind probably doesn’t help them become productive members of society.

        There are literally thousands of examples of successful schools around the world and around the corner to learn from, but too many of us are only concerned about our own kids, our own constituents, and our own personal wealth. We are on a path to creating even larger divides in our society than exist now.

  4. Trey A. says:

    benevolus, I would guess that very near every kid in every school has someone in their lives–usually a parent, but often another family member or a foster parent–that yearns for them to get a quality education. And for a large number of the kids in lower income school districts, middle-class style “parental involvement” and “accountability” simply aren’t options. It’s not the messaging that’s the problem. These unconventional and lower income caretakers are stuck meeting the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for themselves and their loved ones.

    I hear your argument, but I disagree that the current Georgia charter model is bad.

    Like charter school proponents, I want us to bring the best qualities of the entrepreneurial private sector into public education. Metro Atlanta public schools are not like most metro Atlanta fire departments. Our public sector clearly does not have K-12 education “figured out”–and to be fair, the mission and goals of our public schools are immensely more complex and difficult to attain than the mission and goals of our public fire & EMT departments.

    We have plenty of reasons to be skeptical about Georgia’s current charter schools approach, but when the status quo is untenable, it’s a lousy strategy to stonewall new ideas. And it’s also lousy (and lazy) to claim that any given new policy is THE answer until it has been proven as such.

    Five years from now, this will be a completely different discussion. Georgia’s charter schools can’t hide from results–including their ability to transfer positive innovations across their resident school districts. I hope Georgia’s charter schools succeed. And in the meantime, I hope our leaders continue to pursue innovative new ideas to make quality public education a reality for more Georgia students.

    • Charlie says:

      I’ll extend the conversation about charter schools having records:

      For the choice model to be successful, charter schools must be allowed to fail.

      While that sounds counter-intuitive, it shouldn’t be. The charters are all somewhat experimental. Those that achive their goals on both attendance and performance will thrive. Those that fall short must be closed. They shouldn’t recieve special treatment just because they say “charter”.

      New Schools New Orleans has had a zero tolerance for schools that didn’t meet performance goals. There have been failures. But the results are net net positive.

      Those that work should be supported. Those that don’t must be replaced with others that do.

      • benevolus says:

        And I will say, fine, let’s do it, but, what about those kids that don’t end up in a charter school? We MUST deal with them too. Any solution that ignores the biggest part of the problem is no
        solution.

        The biggest difference between public schools and other “models” is that public schools must teach ALL kids. Any plan must at least acknowledge what happens to these kids.

        • Charlie says:

          In New Orleans (Under New Schools New Orleans), every student ended up in a charter school, with the district providing transportation to the school of their choice. The schools remained public, offered true school choice, and the results moved them from being a national embarassment to being a national model in 5 years.

          Seems like we could take one school district here and try and replicate that.

          ….something I may be working on in my other capacity.

          • benevolus says:

            Well I have no professional experience at that sort of thing, but if I can help in some way please let me know. (I am in Fulton County.)

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