Fulton County Superintendent Mike Looney visits a woodshop class at the South Learning Center on Friday, December 13, 2019, in Atlanta. Fulton is the largest charter system in Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage
Photo: Elijah Nouvelage

Audit finds few consequences for schools with ‘flexibility’ contracts

Georgia school districts that have been allowed to circumvent class size caps, teacher training requirements and other education mandates have not been held accountable for the results, a new state audit says.

“Although charter systems and strategic waivers systems are expected to meet specified academic targets as part of their performance contracts, the consequences have been limited thus far,” says the report by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts.

School districts have had the option of pursuing “flexibility” contracts with the Georgia Department of Education, freeing them from some state education laws. The premise: that it will free them to do better by students.

The contracts have been popular, with all but two of the state’s 180 school districts (Buford City in Gwinnett County and Webster County in southwest Georgia) signing them.

The audit gives justifications for the lack of consequences. For instance, school systems have worked with their underperforming schools, often by subjecting them to school improvement plans. Also, school report cards have evolved, making old targets outdated and performance measurement difficult.

Becoming a strategic waivers system has been the most popular option, with 132 districts doing so. Those districts must apply for waivers, and most commonly pursue those that help them manage costs (exceeding class size caps) and personnel (hiring teachers without credentials). 

The 46 charter systems, meanwhile, don’t have to ask for specific waivers. In exchange, their administrations are supposed to cede decision-making to parents, teachers and community members on school counsels, and in many cases those counsels are not exercising all their authority. Mostly, the report says, they focus on hiring principals while giving little guidance on curriculum and instruction.

The charter systems also get an annual state supplement of about $97 per student, which amounts to 1-2% of their total state funding ($29 million compared to $1.8 billion). The auditors were unable to measure the effect of initiatives paid for with that supplement because the amount is “relatively small” and can get mixed in with other funding streams supporting the initiatives.

The audit was prompted by a request from the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee had a variety of detailed questions that didn’t necessarily hew to one theme, so the report has few big takeaways, said Leslie McGuire, director of the Audits Department’s Performance Audit Division.

“A lot of times, the nature of the request is just to check in to see how a policy is working,” she said.

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