Learning Curve: Race debate still in play

The debate is reopening old wounds of race and disparate education in districts still under court desegregation orders.

One of seven charter schools — public schools that operate with greater autonomy in exchange for greater accountability — approved by a new state commission, Pataula plans to open in the fall as a regional public k-8 school. It will enroll 440 students from Randolph, Calhoun, Early, Clay and Baker counties. Some districts now want the state Board of Education to stop Pataula.

Along with drawing from the majority black schools in the region, Pataula is attracting students from two private academies, which are virtually all-white. “Initially, you will see more urgency on the side of private-school parents who are tired of paying tuition,” said Ben Dismukes, a Pataula founder and himself the parent of two private-school students.

The interest of private-school parents has sparked worries that Pataula is a seg academy posing as a public charter school. To counter the innuendo that it is a “white school,” Pataula has held lotteries for slots, and encouraged all families to apply.

“For whatever reason — and it probably goes back to long before charter schools and long before even my time growing up in this area — trust has to be re-established between the African-American and white communities when it comes to education,” said Dismukes.

Although the school systems contend that Pataula will increase segregation, many nearby schools are far from integrated. Out of 756 students in k-8, Randolph County has 694 blacks and 62 whites.

In a letter to the state school board opposing Pataula, Randolph board attorney Tommy Coleman predicted the charter will siphon those few white students: “It is almost a certainty that the students who will be drawn from Randolph County will be white, and not black.”

Since charter schools are not required to provide bus transportation, Randolph says fewer poor minority parents will consider the school. (Pataula is now thinking about contracting transportation or buying its own vans.)

And, in a clear illustration of why race relations remain strained, the Randolph board attorney also wrote that black families won’t like the lack of athletics at Pataula. “There is no present plan for athletics. Thus, for students who are drawn to athletics, as are black students, there is no attraction,” said Coleman.

“After reading that, every African-American parent in Randolph County would likely support more school options,” said Ben Scafidi, chairman of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

“The charge of segregation is routinely leveled against charter schools. Yet, year after year, according to the Georgia Department of Education, charter schools are more diverse, serve more disadvantaged students, and have higher student achievement than public schools overall,” said Scafidi. “Based on the wonderful principal they have hired, the energetic and eager governing board, and the academic need in that area ... we have confidence they will establish a strong school.”

But will Pataula weaken other schools in the region?

Early County Superintendent Kenneth Hall said he wishes Pataula would have targeted students who weren’t faring well in traditional classrooms. So far, the only students in his district — which had all three of its schools make AYP this year — considering Pataula are doing well, he said.

Because he suspects most of Pataula’s enrollment will be former private school students, Early will pay out per-pupil costs it never had before, said Hall. Charter schools get not only state dollars for each student but the funds raised from local taxes as well.

“But my real concern is not the money,” Hall said. “It’s the education quality. What we need to be doing in this community is working together to improve opportunities for all students rather than dividing our resources and people and spreading them too thin.”

Kelly Cadman of the Georgia Charter School Association pointed out that the Pataula backers include local teachers.

“To stand up and do something different is a humongous risk for these teachers,” she said. “These are small, rural counties, and there is no place else for them to go and work.

“They see that people are moving out, they can’t attract industry and the area is dying. They believe if they can do something about education, it will have a broader impact for the entire region.”

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