Unleashing the Power of School Choice: Fulton County Shows Why Districts Shouldn’t Oversee Charter Schools
It would be hard for any superintendent to justify shutting down Fulton Science Academy Middle School. After all, the Alpharetta, Ga., charter school is doing a fine job of educating all of its students. Forty-one percent of its black students scored at advanced levels on Georgia’s standardized tests in 2010-2011, nearly double the rate for the entire Fulton County school district; while 67 percent of the school’s Latino students scored at advanced levels, double the rate for all of Fulton County. As a result of this success, the U.S. Department of Education named the Science Academy one of its 2011 Blue Ribbon Schools, one of eight Peach State schools (and the first charter school in the state) to gain such an honor.
Yet shutting down the school is exactly what Fulton County’s superintendent, Robert Avossa, is recommending to the school board. Why? The underlying reasons illustrate why it is time to abolish state laws that put charter school authorizing into the hands of traditional districts — which are generally competitors with charters for students and funding — and move toward a system in states handle the approval and regulation.
At the heart of the fracas between the Science Academy and the district is the question of how much oversight should the district have in actually overseeing the school. The Science Academy, opened nine years ago and currently operating under a 10-year charter, wants another decade-long agreement in place. But Fulton County district officials want to place the school on a three-year renewal cycle. Why? Not because the district plans on subjecting its other charter schools to similar renewal periods. According to the district, it is prompted by Science Academy’s effort with two other charter schools to build a new campus and take out $18 million in bonds for the purpose. Even though the liabilities for the bond lie solely with the Science Academy and its partner schools — and the school’s annual cash flows are likely more than enough to sustain its share of bond debt — the district declares that it needs a shorter renewal period so that it can “ensure adequate monitoring of the financial liabilities associated with the bond”.
The other issue lies with the school’s request for a waiver from Title 20, a set of state regulations which requires that all teachers have some sort of certification and require schools to maintain class sizes at just 24 students per teacher. Science Academy has been given waivers from Title 20 since its opening. From where the school sits, requiring the school to comply with Title 20 will limit its ability to provide a high-quality education to its students. For example, it notes that Title 20′s class size requirements may keep it from either increasing the number of students for its Connected Mathematics classes, or reduce those numbers in order to provide students intensive remediation. (There’s also the fact that there is no correlation between certification and student achievement, along with research showing that small class sizes only improve student achievement for poor students in the early elementary grades.) Given the Science Academy’s top performance, especially compared to the district’s own middle schools, such an exemption makes sense.
But Fulton County argues that granting the Science Academy a waiver would be inappropriate because they don’t provide waivers to the schools it operates. The district claims that it may allow Science Academy to exempt itself from some specific elements of Title 20, but it can’t determine whether it would be justified because the school insists on a blanket waiver. As far as the district is concerned, complying with Title 20 ” does not prohibit innovation or flexibility” and only allows the school district to monitor the Science Academy’s financial and educational performance. The district also argues that two previous schools failed in part because they didn’t comply with Title 20. But as a former colleague of mine, Bob Pepalis of Patch’s Alpharetta Web site, notes in his report, the two schools the district cites were either shut down or closed voluntarily because of fiscal failure, noncompliance with environmental regulations, and the lack of special education teachers, almost none of which would have to do with Title 20 regulations.
Certainly, one can argue that both sides are making good points. Science Academy’s longstanding performance exemplifies the best of what charter schools can and should be able to do when you move education away from the traditional district concept. Fulton County, on the other hand, should be able to keep an eye on the charters it authorizes (which is something that authorizers of all kinds should do). Yet the way Fulton County is handling the reauthorization of the school is rather heavy-handed, with little thought as to whether the regulatory approach makes any sense; the heavy-handedness is amazing given that the district itself is attempting to take advantage of Georgia’s own efforts to embrace the Hollywood Model of Education and allow districts to free itself from regulations. This lends credence to the perception among some parents and others that the district is more annoyed with the fact that the charter is showing up traditional district schools than concerned about ensuring high-quality education for students.
This, in turn, shows one of the biggest obstacles to the expansion of charter schools and school choice that, as I point out in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, is critical to sustaining the reform of American public education: The fact that in many states, school districts are charged with deciding whether charters can open in the first place.
Considering that charters are essentially competitors with districts for students, funding, and reputations for improving student achievement, there is little incentive for the latter to allow for any to open in the first place. It is akin to allowing Red Lobster to decide whether an Applebees can open next door. This is particularly true for suburban districts such as Fulton County, which, until recently, have been able to maintain the image that they are provide high quality teaching and curricula despite evidence that this isn’t even close to reality. It is why Montgomery County, Md. (where only 31 percent of students would outperform peers in Singapore) has allowed only one charter to open , and why the suburbs outside of urban locales such as New York City and D.C. work hard to restrict the opening of charters in their midst.
Even when the district opens the charter, the fear of being shown up by the rival school creates a tension that can spill out into regulatory activity. What can, on its face, seem to be sensible regulating by the district may end up being little more than a petty effort to close down a competitor that places pressure on it to do better. This is certainly possible in the case of Fulton County, which, unlike Science Academy, hasn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress. Since some districts provide the dollars for charters (albeit, in most cases, in a pass-through role), the district can use “protecting taxpayers’ interests” to justify putting charter competitors through the proverbial grinder
The proper solution is place charter school authorization solely in the hands of state education departments. After all, given that charters actually function as local education agencies, it makes sense that they should be monitored only by the state. In Georgia (where efforts to allow a state agency to authorize charters was kiboshed by the state supreme court earlier this year), the first step starts with following that of states such as Indiana and amend state law in order to make charters their own school districts.
A more important step lies with overhauling school funding systems. Considering that states account for 48 percent of all school funding (in Georgia, it is 43 percent), it would make sense for states to replace local property tax funding with state dollars. This would essentially turning school funding into vouchers that follow every child to whatever school, public, private or parochial, they so choose, allowing for the expansion of charters and other choice options (and remove districts from obstructionist roles).
The dispute between Fulton Science Academy and the Fulton County district shows once again the need to get charters from under traditional district control — and embrace the Hollywood Model of Education.