For school reformers and defenders of traditional public education these days, the Atlanta metropolitan area is better-known for the testing scandal that has engulfed Atlanta Public Schools, revealed the district’s dysfunctional school governance, and led to Superintendent Beverly Hall’s fall from grace. The attention to that matter, however, obscures the path-breaking step being taken by Atlanta’s sister system, the Fulton County school district.
By mid-February, the district may end up ditching its traditional district model and becoming a system of charter schools. Taking advantage of a three-year-old state law that allows for traditional districts to break away from state laws governing teacher salaries, evaluations and class sizes, Fulton County plans to ditch most of its central administration and largely limit the school board to a supervisory role. The day-to-day operations of the district’s 89 schools currently under traditional management (stretched across the 13 cities and the county’s unincorporated areas outside of Atlanta) would fall into the hands of each school’s principals and parents in a manner similar to that of the district’s 12 charter schools.
Certainly a change in governance isn’t going to solve all the issues that Fulton County faces. Although the district’s five-year graduation rates (based on 8th grade enrollment) have increased from 75 percent (for the Class of 2001) to 81 percent (for the Class of 2006, the most complete data available), the district still faces some key achievement gaps. Just 47 percent of Fulton County’s Latino male freshmen in the original Class of 2006 graduated (versus 75 percent of their female peers), while only 66 percent of young black men graduated on time (versus 74 percent of young black women). There is also a high level of overdiagnosing learning disabilities, with 8 percent of Latino male students and 9 percent of young black men were diagnosed with learning disabilities (the rate for white males was just 5 percent). Twenty-seven schools — many of them in South Fulton past Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, but also some in the wealthier northern part of the county — were rated academically failing in 2010.
But by converting the schools into charters, Fulton County may be able to adapt new approaches to improving teaching, curricula and leadership — and ultimately, foster a culture of genius in all of its schools. One idea being bandied about is allowing for blended learning options that would feature online instruction. More importantly, the budgeting and resource allocation functions can move from central offices (where politics and collective bargaining agreements hold sway over school decisions) to schools, giving principals the ability to make decisions; it could even lead to a weighted student funding system in which dollars actually follow the student.
If the school board fully moves away from managing schools, it would even allow for greater school choice to be fostered; the school board would take on the role of charter school authorizers, bringing in high-quality charter operators into the county and offering greater choice. For poor and minority parents in South Fulton, greater options would be especially welcome.
What’s happening in Fulton County could offer Atlanta politicians some thoughts on what to do about Atlanta Public Schools (whose academic problems were chronicled by Dropout Nation even before the testing scandal erupted this year). One possibility lies with the city’s new mayor, Kasim Reed, following the path of mayors such as Richard Daley and Michael Bloomberg by taking control of the district. But that would mean convincing Fulton County’s legislative delegation (which can put a stranglehold on any reform effort, as they did during the 1990s with efforts by residents in what is now Sandy Springs to form their own city government), as well as working with the Republican-dominated legislature and new governor Nathan Deal (who is no exemplar on school reform). (By the way: Maureen Downey, the education commentator for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution argues against the idea). Another possibility would be to essentially convert the Atlanta district into a charter system as it is happening in Fulton County (and in eight other school systems in the Peach State), and relegating the school board (or the mayor) into an authorizer and regulator role.
Fulton County and Atlanta may find themselves on the path to the Hollywood Model of Education and the end of traditional district operation of schools. Which for the kids and parents, would not be a bad thing at all.