Fulton recognizes parent demand for choice and plans to offer more. Good idea?

Even bereft its ambitious superintendent, the Fulton County School System is still proceeding with an ambitious plan to offer a wider range of education options.

Superintendent Robert Avossa is leaving the 96,000-student district for the larger Palm Beach County system in Florida. Ken Zeff, who takes over as interim superintendent next week, shares Avossa’s view that parents want and deserve choices.

An array of choices may lessen the exodus of by parents who want a non-traditional setting for their children. More than 15 percent of Fulton families opted for private schools this school year.

While Fulton has increased its number of district-approved charter schools, the AJC reports more than 1,600 families are on charter school wait lists for next fall, largely in south  Fulton where school performance is not as high as north Fulton.

(North Fulton is one of the state's most affluent areas and boasts some of the highest achieving high schools in Georgia. Its schools are a major draw for new families moving to the metro region.)

Not every student learns in the same way so Fulton is expanding school design options.

"This is not an attempt to dismantle traditional public schools," said Zeff in an AJC news story by Fulton Schools reporter Rose French. "Traditional-model schools are performing great for a lot of kids. But some parents want and some students would do better in a different environment.”

I believe public school choice is a vital issue, but understand it is far easier in a larger district with ample resources and strong parental interest. Fulton seems an ideal candidate, as does DeKalb, which was an early pioneer of theme schools in Georgia.

As French reports:

Among the proposals are Montessori schools and dual-language immersion schools, where students from kindergarten through eighth grade can learn another language. Fulton is also looking to partner with a major local university to create an early honors college program that would provide an opportunity for the brightest students to get college credit.

Fulton hopes to have the schools running by fall 2016 and is creating them now, with board members expected to iron out plans this summer. The proposed schools are in addition to the magnet, charter and other alternatives Fulton currently offers. The school district wants to keep more families from leaving the public school system, as some in Fulton have done.

"Fulton County schools are in the midst of one of the more aggressive efforts of its kind in Georgia to provide school choice options for students," said Louis Erste, associate superintendent for charter schools with the Georgia Department of Education.

Under the proposed initiative outlined at a recent school board meeting, Fulton is looking to create three dual-language immersion K-8 schools in the central, northeast and northwest areas of the district. Two Montessori schools serving K-5 students are also being proposed for the central and northeast areas.

The Early Honors College, which could be located on the college campus Fulton ends up partnering with, would offer increased academic rigor for high-performing students for entry into the University System of Georgia. Fulton leaders say a significant number of students are prepared to enter that system.

The district doesn't know yet how much extra the proposed choice schools might cost, though they expect additional funding may be needed for the Montessori model development.

What is not envisioned in the school choice initiative: adding private school vouchers, removing attendance boundaries or creating countywide transportation to the new schools.

Education scholars say lack of transportation for students outside the immediate vicinity of the schools could be an obstacle to equity.

"If you provide busing, it becomes much more expensive," said Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. "If you don't provide transportation, then they're basically saying those who don't have a car can't really make these choices. You're making it a disadvantage for those who are less affluent."

Fulton is trying to provide school choice options to all regions of the district to avoid potential inequities and intentionally rolling out the new options slowly to see what works and what may not, Zeff said.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.