Georgia lawmakers aim to change the way schools are accredited

Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, speaks in the Senate Chambers at the Georgia State Capitol on Feb. 24. He authored Senate Bill 498, which would change the way schools are accredited. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, speaks in the Senate Chambers at the Georgia State Capitol on Feb. 24. He authored Senate Bill 498, which would change the way schools are accredited. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Dissatisfaction with the process in Cobb County triggered two bills

A squabble over accreditation in Cobb County could affect Georgia’s 179 other school districts as state lawmakers push back against a flawed review.

Cognia, the global nonprofit that accredits most of Georgia’s school districts, recently issued a rare retraction to a review critical of the Cobb County School District. The review was launched last year, in part, after the three Democrat school board members complained the four Republican members were limiting their participation.

The legislation, driven mainly by Republicans, would all but eliminate school board governance from future reviews. Senate Bill 498 would instead base school accreditation 80% on academics and 20% on finances.

“Basically the thing that concerned me was that 16 months before that (review) Cognia had given them a clean bill of health and said they were operating very well,” said Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, author of the Senate bill.

ExploreAccreditation agency reverses most criticism of Cobb County Schools

Cognia conducted its review in August and issued a report in November calling for numerous improvements, including how financial decisions are made and how the school board operates. In its retraction, Cognia threw out all findings except for its criticism of board governance.

“The evidence indicated that the board is fractured. You are divided,” Mark Elgart, the president and CEO of Cognia, told the board Monday. “You can watch one board meeting, you can watch 10 board meetings, you can watch 50. It’s highly evident.”

Elgart said in a letter to the district that the tossed review was largely conducted by volunteers who “did not adequately contextualize or incorporate factual evidence.” Their work was not substantively checked by professional staff members because there was no change to the district’s accreditation status, he said.

“That’s malfeasance and misfeasance,” Tippins said.

Cognia did not respond to multiple requests for comments about the proposed law.

ExploreGroup that accredits metro Atlanta schools operates under public’s radar

Phillip Murphy, executive director of the state’s other public school accreditation agency — the Georgia Accrediting Commission — said the bill seems to miss the point of accreditation. The purpose is to let colleges know that students have graduated from a school that has met a basic set of standards, he said.

“Much of the part that deals with performance — those things are already handled with the report cards school systems have to generate,” he said. “This is making an outside agency also responsible for student achievement.”

If the goal of Tippins’ bill is to avoid the loss of accreditation due to board behaviors, Murphy said, lawmakers would do better to develop laws and standards about appropriate behaviors for boards of education.

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Rep. Ginny Ehrhart, R-Marietta, introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives. She was critical of Cognia, in part, because complaints about the district were not made public.

“There was just absolutely no transparency whatsoever,” Ehrhart said. “And yet they came in and wielded their power, put the school district through an unscheduled review based in this flimsy at best criteria.”

Last June, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of a 12-page summary of the complaints submitted by several residents, including Cobb teachers and parents, who said the board was dysfunctional and failed to maintain fiscal oversight of the district.

ExploreMore stories about Cobb County Public Schools

Cognia’s Elgart said the district was never in danger of losing accreditation over concerns about the board members’ conduct, but other Georgia school districts have faced repercussions after accreditation downgrades over board behavior.

AdvanceED, a predecessor of Cognia before a merger, put DeKalb County on probation a decade ago, triggering a state law that allows removal of school board members. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal replaced six of the nine board members in 2013 after the state education board suspended them for putting accreditation at risk.

Marshall Orson, who was not removed from the board, still remains in office. He supports Tippins’ legislation and says it’s “a bill that should have bipartisan support because it affects every school district in the state.”


About Cognia

- Cognia is an Alpharetta-based global nonprofit organization that largely operates without government oversight.

- Most of Georgia’s public school systems are accredited by Cognia.

- School districts pay tens of thousands of dollars each year to voluntarily adhere to guidelines set forth by Cognia.

- Cognia President and CEO Mark Elgart has said the intent of accreditation is to provide a consistent set of standards for colleges to look at when accepting graduating high school seniors.