Flexibility choices fo Georgia schools: Is freedom just another word for no money?

JON KRAUSE/NEWSART
Caption
JON KRAUSE/NEWSART

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

The Georgia Legislature has a fondness for passing education laws that feature the words “flexibility” and “charter.” Lawmakers like these laws even better when they don't involve large infusions of new cash for schools.

One such law is about to take root.  All 180 of the state's school districts have until June to proclaim themselves some form of charter (system charter, system of charter clusters or system of charter schools) or the old standby "Investing in Educational Excellence" system, or IE2. The other choice open to districts is to declare themselves satisfied with the status quo, which, by design, sounds unappealing and lazy.

In exchange for increased flexibility and freedom from some regulations, the state will hold systems accountable for higher performances.

Caption
JON KRAUSE/NEWSART

Credit: Maureen Downey

JON KRAUSE/NEWSART
Caption
JON KRAUSE/NEWSART

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Georgia lawmakers revere "flexibility" and “creativity” as the levers to improve academics. They contend school systems – even those so underfunded they've cut chunks out of their calendars – will flourish if given freedom and flexibility.

Georgia lawmakers have somehow convinced themselves more freedom makes  up for less money, and they often cite charter schools as proof.

Their theory has some holes. Overall, charter school performance is mixed. Some of the nation’s highest performing charters are also blessed with the greatest influx of grants, corporate largesse and donor dollars.

While it is now taboo to utter these words in the Georgia Legislature, money does help, which is why Atlanta’s top private schools charge $20,000 a year and still press parents for frequent donations.

Yes, flexibility is beneficial, but it’s an empty gesture if districts are also being forced to slash their school calendars and raise class sizes. I can't cite a single  successful education reform targeting struggling students that entails less time on task.

Here are the options and the ramifications of the choices facing Georgia school districts in the next nine months as reported by ace AJC education writers Ty Tagami and Molly Bloom:

> Key feature of charter district: Requirement for school-level governance. Consequences of failure to attain goals include loss of charter, with consequent loss of waivers.

> Key feature of IE2: No requirement for school-level governance. Consequences of failure to attain goals include potential loss of governance over schools that fail to meet targets after five years, with control taken by a charter governance board, another school system or a private entity, among other possibilities.

Georgia districts have a big financial incentive to pursue either charter status or another model called "Investing in Educational Excellence, "or "IE2." They can reject either option, but doing so may cause them to lose money-saving waivers that have allowed them to exceed state caps on class sizes and to cut attendance calendars below the minimum 180 days. The waivers, popular during the recession, are still used in most of Georgia's 180 districts as a way to balance budgets.

Gwinnett County Schools, Georgia's biggest district, chose IE2 in 2009. Fulton, Georgia's fourth-largest district, is in the third year of its charter. It is the biggest school system in the state to get that status. Those counties' experience shows some of the challenges of the switch to either model.

In charter systems, officials must re-engineer central offices to support decision-making by local school governance councils. Under IE2 there's no requirement for those governance councils. Both types of systems get waivers.

Cobb is leaning toward IE2, DeKalb is headed down the charter route and Atlanta hasn't decided.

The General Assembly adopted these new models in the late 2000s, after districts complained that state rules were tying them down. Their complaint boiled down to this, said Lou Erste, the official who oversees "flexibility" options for the Georgia Department of Education: "Get the state off our back so we can improve student performance because we're spending all our time following all these rules."

Gwinnett, the state's largest school district, went IE2 in 2009, with the goal of raising academic performance among low-income students and students with disabilities.

The rules under IE2 allow for conversion of failing schools to charter oversight, among other consequences. The state is still assessing Gwinnett's performance. The district got a one-year extension pending a state performance review. District administrators believe the flexibility has been helpful and want another five years.

Charter districts get a modest financial benefit beyond the waivers --- up to $4.5 million in grants apiece.

It's too early to know whether the increased flexibility in Fulton has resulted in better performance. Erste, the DOE official, said the state is still assessing the district's performance.

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