When news affects a family choice

I am the editor responsible for choosing stories that will run on Page One of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I must weigh factors such as impact, importance, reader interest, relevance to the community, and others, such as being a watchdog over government. Personal interest is not one of those factors.

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Board of Education recommended that Gov. Nathan Deal suspend six members of the DeKalb County school board. For several consecutive days thereafter, the DeKalb school district was the top news story in our newspaper.

But my own concern had started to grow months earlier — when in December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put the school district on probation and threatened to strip its accreditation over allegations of nepotism and financial mismanagement. That concern was not just with the news of the day as A1 editor, but as a parent of one of the 90,000 students in the troubled school district.

As a newspaper journalist for more than 20 years – starting with my first job as a copy editor and reporter at The State in Columbia, S.C., to working for 12 years at the Dallas Morning News before coming to The AJC in 2007 – I’ve always prided myself on being able to walk the middle line as a reporter and as an editor. This time is no different. News is news whether it touches my personal life or not. This time it does.

I have a teenager who is a student at a school in North DeKalb. Like many schools in the metro area, it’s had mixed results in trying to educate a diverse population from different demographic and economic backgrounds. The financial challenges — which have led to staff layoffs, cutbacks in academic programs and increased class sizes — certainly have not helped.

Still, we’ve been pretty satisfied with our school. Even as a freshman, my daughter has taken biology and literature classes that rival some of the courses I took as a student at the University of Georgia.

And yet, almost daily, I ask myself: Do we stay or go? It’s one thing to leave a failing school that’s providing an inadequate education. It’s another to leave a school where your child is happy and challenged — where leaving is not based on academic failure, but the inadequacies of the board leading the school district.

For parents of high schoolers, there’s a heightened sense of urgency in resolving the accreditation matter. Just ask the parents in Clayton County, which faced a similar situation a few years ago. You wonder if all the hard work of students and teachers will matter if the diploma seniors are handed on graduation day is stamped by a non-accredited school district. Parents and students fret anxiously about how this will impact their prospects for getting into a good college, and rightly so.

When the governor announced his decision to move toward replacing six of the nine board members, I was relieved — and I was disturbed. I had the same reaction a few days later, when a federal judge refused to intervene. As a parent, I was relieved because perhaps now DeKalb stands a chance in its accreditation fight. And certainly those 90,000 students matter most. And yet, the constitutionality arguments in this case keep nagging at me.

Former school board chairman Eugene Walker asserts that the governor’s actions are “usurping the one man, one vote rights” of the people who elected Walker and other board members. In the federal lawsuit, lawyers for the board have argued that the “vague subjective standards” used by SACS disenfranchises the voters who put the board members in office.

Many readers on the AJC’s Get Schooled blog have argued for a single side on the issue. And then there are those who will argue passionately for both sides. I find myself among the latter. Education and voting rights are both important issues for me. I grew up in a small Georgia town not many years after the landmark Voting Rights Act. I was taught early on the power of the vote and the history of its evolution in this country, including the Suffrage Movement. But my parents also instilled in me and my five siblings the value of not just any education but a good, strong education that could take us farther than the mindset of a small Southern town. Likewise, I don’t want my own daughter to be limited by a devalued school system.

Should the lawsuit continue, a higher court will decide the legality of the state’s action. For now, I’m confident that the judicial system will ultimately work for the good of the people. As for my more personal, pressing question, will we go or will we stay? We’ll have to see.

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