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

210617-Suwanee-Gwinnett County Board of Education Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, left, talks with Marshall Boutwell before a meeting of the board of education Thursday evening, June 17, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

210617-Suwanee-Gwinnett County Board of Education Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, left, talks with Marshall Boutwell before a meeting of the board of education Thursday evening, June 17, 2021. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Most of Georgia’s public school systems are accredited by a nonprofit organization tasked with setting educational standards that prepare students for life after the classroom.

School districts shell out thousands of dollars each year to voluntarily adhere to guidelines set forth by Cognia, which for the last 126 years has been the leading accreditation agency.

Now that two of the state’s largest school districts — Gwinnett and Cobb — are under special review by the Alpharetta-based organization, the spotlight has turned to this powerful group that largely operates without government oversight.

Much of how Cognia works and the people behind the nonprofit are a mystery to the general public, and at least one Georgia state legislator questions if more competition is needed in the school accreditation business.

Cognia declined to participate in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing the special review process underway in Cobb and Gwinnett. However, President & CEO Mark Elgart told the AJC last month that the intent of accreditation is to provide a consistent set of standards for colleges to look at when accepting graduating high schools seniors.

“It is not set up to have competition,” he said, adding Cognia’s reputation has led to the company’s success. “It’s set up to provide standardization in educational expectations.”

More alternatives needed?

Cognia’s investigations into Cobb and Gwinnett schools could be an opportunity to scrutinize the company’s dominance in accrediting Georgia schools, said State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican who represents parts of Cobb County.

Tippins said Cognia’s decision to conduct a special review less than two years after renewing the Cobb County School District’s accreditation is “puzzling to me.”

Cognia previously told The AJC that it received about 50 letters of complaint about the district. Most of them center on concerns over the school board, district leadership and governance. Tippins said that number of complaints is a small percentage to the district’s student population of 107,000.

“Less than a year later, they are back under a special review that came at the instigation of probably more political motivation than academic motivation,” Tippins said, adding that the accreditation business might “need more alternatives or competition.”

In addition to declining an interview request, Cognia officials did not respond to specific questions about Tippins’ concerns.

Most of the complaints in Gwinnett also involve school district leadership and cross political and racial lines.

Last year’s election resulted in a Gwinnett school board divided between three Democratic members of color and two white Republicans who are also older and live farther north. Parents and community members on both sides of the schism began complaining to Cognia.

In a letter to the school district, Cognia said the complaints involve board members’ behavior and use of social media, as well as discriminatory student discipline in Gwinnett — a frequent grievance leveled by those who support the board majority.

Democratic State Rep. Sam Park, who represents parts of Gwinnett County, said school board members have told him that Cognia has acted impartially with its investigation. He also said residents should not overreact since the review process is part of Cognia’s standard operating procedure.

“I hope that school board members will have an opportunity to focus on what they are elected to do, which is to teach the next generation of Georgians, and I believe they will do just that,” he said.

What is Cognia?

According to its website, Cognia accredits 36,000 primary and secondary public and private schools in 85 countries, with nearly 30,000 of those institutions located in the United States. It also provides student assessment resources, professional learning opportunities and tools districts can use to improve leadership and student engagement, its website adds.

The nonprofit is governed by an 11-member board of directors and has an 8-member executive leadership team. Elgart has served as Cognia’s CEO for about 20 years and was compensated $924,850 in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s 2020 Internal Revenue Service filing.

The document also shows Cognia employed 545 people and engaged about 18,000 volunteers during calendar year 2019.

Cognia reported total revenue of $121.1 million against $120.5 million in expense in 2019, according to the filing.

The organization got its start in 1895 with the founding of two groups: North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

SACS’ kindergarten through 12th-grade division merged in 2006 with two other regional accrediting entities to form AdvancED, which underwent another merger in 2018 and renamed Cognia.

Cognia and the Georgia Accrediting Commission are the only two public school accrediting associations recognized by the Peach State.

Districts in the United States pay between $1,200 and $3,600 per school to join Cognia and follow its accreditation standards. Depending on the size of the district, the annual cost can exceed $100,000. For example, the Cobb County district — which has 112 schools — previously told The AJC it pays Cognia $133,200 each year for membership.

School systems are accredited for five years, and districts that are due for renewal are treated to site visits by Cognia’s review team to determine if they are following the organization’s standards.

Investigations into accredited institutions’ actions are done “when supported by substantial evidence and when they involve matters that could seriously hinder or disrupt the educational effectiveness of the institution and ability of the institution to meet the Cognia policies or standards for accreditation or certification,” according to its Accreditation and Certification Policy.

School districts are allowed to respond to complaints in writing. Complaints are investigated when Cognia determines a district’s responses are unsatisfactory.

Cognia said it reviews its standards for member schools every five years and is expected to release updated standards this year that will go into effect for the 2022-23 year.

No dog in the fight

The accreditation process is voluntary for schools and districts, but having that status is monumental because of its ties to Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship, said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

The HOPE Scholarship helps college-bound students pay for tuition at any in-state post-secondary university. Students who qualify must graduate from a high school accredited by one of several agencies recognized by the state, among other requirements.

“Georgia’s been pretty entrenched in this for a very long time,” said Pruitt, who held several top positions in the Georgia Department of Education. “I think it’s understandable. Now that doesn’t mean people enjoy it. The prep that goes into a Cognia accreditation visit is no small feat.”

Pruitt said Cognia applies a strict, politically agnostic set of standards to school districts.

“Each county should be able to expect that their boards and their schools systems have civil and respectful conduct with one another,” he said. “They can certainly disagree. There should never be a rubber stamp, but at the same time, they’re working for kids. There should be a focus on making sure that what’s happening is on behalf of the students.

“Having an organization that doesn’t have a proverbial dog in the fight, you would hope, would be one thing that allows them to have a better conversation.”

Complaints to accrediting agencies tend to come in when school boards are so divided they can’t function, Pruitt said.

Accreditation battles across Georgia

The power of accreditation and the fallout from its loss reverberated through Clayton County Public Schools when it was stripped of its’ status in 2008. Clayton suffered from a dysfunctional school board that undermined administrators, impeded efforts to curriculum improvements and failed to follow open meetings laws, among other issues, according to previous AJC stories.

The revocation led to an exodus of students from the district and, while it regained full accreditation status in 2016, Clayton continues to recover economically from the that bleak moment in its history.

Other districts around the metro area have felt the heat, but changed course before losing accreditation. Atlanta Public Schools were placed on probation in 2011 after a review found the board suffered from poor governance and infighting among members. The district later regained its full accredited status for its high schools.

DeKalb County schools were placed on probation in late 2012 after a review found district officials engaged in bickering and nepotism while letting district finances wither and academic achievement dwindle.

Michael Thurmond was hired as DeKalb’s interim superintendent to address the accreditation and the district’s $14 million deficit. He came in just before former Gov. Nathan Deal in 2013 ousted six school board members for fiscal irresponsibility and the board “being at war with itself.” The district earned full accreditation status in 2016.

In that same year, Gov. Deal used his powers again to remove all five members of the Dooly County Board of Education. The south-central rural school district faced losing its accreditation after board members meddled in day-to-day operations and failed to act on changes outlined by the accrediting agency.

While Cognia’s investigations into Atlanta, Clayton and DeKalb schools have been highly publicized, rural districts have also run afoul of the organization’s standards. Cognia has conducted investigations into smaller districts like Clarke County, McIntosh County and Miller County.

Right to seek redress

Joyce Morley was one of six people appointed by Deal to replace the DeKalb school board members. Morley, who has been in office since 2013, said board members have to remember that they are elected to serve students, not their political interest.

“Sometimes board members lose sight on who are the important entities: the parents, the children, the community,” she said. “When people are not believing they are heard by school boards or superintendents, they have the right to seek some type of redress.”

Marlyn Tillman, co-founder of the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, said she was “shocked” Cognia was looking into discipline in Gwinnett, after she complained to accrediting agencies for years that the district disproportionately punished students of color. Tillman said the agencies, which later became Cognia, told her the complaints were outside their scope of review.

“I wish Cognia had been just as intentional when Black parents were ringing the bell,” she said.

Tillman and others believe conservative white parents flooded Cognia with complaints to force a review that they hope will induce the governor to remove the school board members they oppose. Cognia didn’t respond to a question about that accusation.

Holly Terei, a local leader of No Left Turn in Education, said she filed multiple complaints with Cognia and knows many others who joined her, but she does not want school board members removed or for the district to lose accreditation.

“We don’t want to be the embarrassment of Georgia,” said Terei, whose family moved to Gwinnett a decade ago for the well-reputed schools. “I want us to be the standard, the example, like we’ve always been.”

The story so far:

Gwinnett and Cobb County, two of the state’s largest school systems, are under a special accreditation review by Cognia, the organization responsible for certifying school districts throughout Georgia. Both reviews were prompted by complaints by community members of school board dysfunction. Cognia will make on-site visits to both districts and draft a report 30 to 60 days afterward.