Opinion: If APS wants to help its students, provide more choice than neighborhood school

I ran a  blog post a few days ago by Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen explaining why APS hired Erin Hames, former chief education policy adviser to Gov. Nathan Dean and now a private education consultant.

A week ago, the APS school board approved a $96,000 contract with Hames. In her subsequent post, Carstarphen explained Hames will advise APS on how to avert the absorption of its schools into Deal’s proposed Opportunity School District, a proposal Hames helped develop.

Atlanta and DeKalb County have about two dozen schools apiece eligible for state takeover based on chronic under performance. More than 20 Augusta schools also could face takeover, along with about half a dozen in Fulton and several in Clayton.

As the AJC’s education reporters Molly Bloom and Ty Tagami explained this weekend:

The vote is more than a year away, but debate over Gov. Nathan Deal's proposed takeover of failing schools has moved from the Capitol into community centers and schools themselves. It pits Georgia's cherished ideal of local control of schools and tax dollars against the urgency to improve education via an "Opportunity School District."

As opponents and supporters line up their endorsements and attacks, school district leaders are racing to get schools off the target list. And teachers and students at the more than 100 schools potentially subject to takeover are facing yet another set of turnaround programs.

In November 2016, Georgians will vote on authorizing the takeover district. The constitutional amendment would shift control of low-performing schools to an appointed superintendent, so decisions about how students are taught and how local tax dollars are spent would no longer be solely up to locally elected officials.

The proposed change to the constitution would allow the state to take over "failing" schools and close them, run them or convert them to independent charter schools. The schools would be part of a new statewide district for up to a decade. This new superintendent, selected by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, would have authority to take local property tax revenue to fund both the schools and the opportunity district administration.

Continuing his drum beat for greater school choice, Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk sent me a response to Carstarphen’s comments. (Delk has been urging greater school choice in Georgia for 25 years and has done legal work for charter schools. He notes most of the work has been pro bono.)

Here is his response to Carstarphen:

By Glenn Delk

Recently, Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstaphen took to her blog to explain the strategy she and the Atlanta Board of Education have adopted to avoid the possible takeover of nearly one-third of APS’s schools, should the voters approve Gov. Deal’s Opportunity School District in the November 2016 elections.

She concluded her explanation with these telling comments…”Through all of these efforts and community engagement, we can find a path that ensures that all of our schools remain APS schools. But that path can only be defined by child-centric agendas and not adult-focused ones…”

If she and the Board of Education truly put the interests of children ahead of adults, instead of hiring high-priced consultants to “…help us navigate the system to avoid the OSD..”, they would vote to allow APS students to use education savings accounts to choose the school which best fit their needs. The time has come for the Board of Education and its superintendent to stop trying to avoid a state takeover, and instead fulfill what Gov. Deal has called a moral duty to help students trapped in failing schools.

It’s been five years since the cheating scandal first surfaced. In those five years, the Atlanta Board of Education has spent more than $3.5 billion in taxpayers’ funds to pay for a school system which has, according to the state’s 2014 CCRPI rankings, 31 elementary, 12 middle and 13 high schools, or over 50 percent ranked D or F.

However, those results don’t begin to show the depth of the problem, given Georgia’s low academic standards compared to the national NAEP results. Keep in mind that Georgia ranks either dead last, or next to last, when comparing our standards to other states, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress results as the benchmark.

According to the 2013 NAEP results, 88 percent of black 8th grade students in APS are not proficient in math, and 84 percent are not proficient in reading. Unfortunately, APS is typical of the entire state, since 80 percent of all low-income 8th grade students statewide are not proficient according to NAEP.

Another indicator of the lack of acceptable academic achievement by both APS students, as well as statewide, is the recent report by the ACT that only 11 percent of Georgia high school graduates who qualify for free and reduced lunch met college readiness benchmarks on the four major subjects.

Since over 76 percent of APS students are low-income, APS is clearly not meeting Gov. Deal’s goal of having at least 60 percent of entering 9th grade students ultimately receive a two or four-year college degree.

Atlanta is a microcosm of the state and the country when it comes to the issue of giving low-income minority families the same rights and financial means as wealthier families, to choose the best school for their child. Those residents with the money to do so have bought a house in the right zip codes where their children can attend Buckhead or Midtown schools such as Jackson or Morris Brandon, where less than 10 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, or pay $25,000 or more in after-tax income to attend Lovett, Westminster, etc.

While these parents can exercise school choice, the low-income families, who are overwhelmingly black, whose children attend one of the 68 APS schools where the free and reduced lunch percentage is 98 percent or more, have no such choice.

Instead of trying to figure out how to save the jobs of the adults working for APS by navigating the system to avoid the OSD, the Atlanta school board should announce that, beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, any student attending an APS school will be eligible for an education savings account of $10,000 for those students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, and $7500 for everyone else. The funds can be used to pay for private schools, public charter schools, or out-of-district traditional public schools. Assume that all 38,000 poor students decide to use ESAs, taking $380 million with them to other educational providers. The Atlanta Board of Education, if it chose, would still have $300 million to educate the remaining 12,000 students, or $25,000 per student.

I realize Dr. Carstarphen and the nine members of the Atlanta Board of Education will never voluntarily adopt my idea. However, if they did so, they would be fulfilling Dr. Carstarphen’s stated objective of putting the interests of children ahead of adults. By doing so, they would also become the first city in the country to fulfill the real meaning of Brown v. Bd. of Education.

In 1951, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that, when the state provides a benefit such as education, it must treat everyone alike, and that segregating students on the basis of race was unconstitutional. Over 50 years later, by giving Atlanta’s poor families ESAs, the Atlanta school board would be acknowledging that segregating students by wealth, income or zip code, is also unconstitutional.