A day after Dropout Nation reported on the battle between the high-achieving Fulton Science Academy Middle School in Alpharetta and the suburban Atlanta district overseeing it over the school’s reauthorization, the Fulton County district’s school board voted unanimously to not allow the school to continue its operations. In spite of the wide support from those attending the school board meeting and the efforts of two Georgia state senators, the district decided that it must, in the words of board president Linda Schultz, “consider its obligation of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.”
As Dropout Nation reported on Monday, the issue at stake is hardly as clear cut as Schultz makes it seem to be. The Science Academy, which 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, not because other charters were going to be subjected to similar renewal periods, but because the school was teaming up with two other schools to borrow $18 million in bonds for building a new campus. Despite the fact that the district wasn’t on the hook for the debt and the Science Academy’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 district also opposed the Science Academy’s request for an exemption from the Peach State’s teacher certification and class size rules, even though it had previously given the school such an exemption and the school has proven so good at improving student achievement that it has been recognized by the federal government as one of its Blue Ribbon Schools. By the way, the Blue Ribbon designation is only given to schools that improve student achievement of all students based on their racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds; Science Academy has managed to do this while most of the Fulton County district’s own middle schools have not.
Meanwhile Fulton County revealed at last night’s hearing that it was also concerned that the school signed a $156,000 contract with the Grace Institute for Educational Research and Resources, an organization with ties to the Gulen Movement, without going through a bidding process; Science Academy’s executive director and principal also serve on the organization’s board. The district argues that it created a conflict of interest. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this year, the work of Gulen-tied groups (most-notably the Cosmos Foundation) have led to the kind of xenophobic whisper campaigns (especially among education traditionalists) that are subjecting the entire charter school movement to scrutiny. A petition on the site Change.org decrying Science Academy’s ties to the Grace Institute garnered 63 signatures; there are additional petitions on the site demanding Fulton County to deny the school a charter.
At this moment, the Science Academy has few options. It has already submitted a revised reauthorization request, asking for an eight-year charter instead of a 10-year renewal; it has also listed specific elements of state law from which it wants waivers. But given Fulton County Superintendent Robert Avossa’s strident stance against giving Science Academy anything more than a three-year renewal (and the unwillingness of the district to buckle against the public backlash), the school will likely have to seek a special reauthorization from Georgia State officials. This would mean less money for the school because it won’t get the local share of operating funds. But it would mean freedom from oversight from what is essentially a competitor.
The battle in Fulton County shows once again why states must move away from charging school districts with deciding whether charters can operate. As I note in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, this state of affairs — which is akin to allowing Bonefish Grill to decide if an Uno’s Chicago can open up next door — is one of the key reasons why four out of every five families (especially those in suburbia) don’t have the wide array of high-quality options they need to help their kids succeed in school and life. Even when a district allows for charters to open, the fear of being shown up by the rival school creates a tension that can spill out into regulatory activity. This essentially subjects charters to the kind of arbitrary and capricious regulating that can make it difficult for those schools to continue operations.
Unfortunately, in states, where districts are the authorizers, such sparring matches seem to increasingly be the norm. In Richmond, Va., for example, Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts is battling with the city’s school district over the school’s operations. The district argues that turnover in the school’s treasurers is a cause for concern even as it maintains a strong financial condition. It has gotten so nasty that one Richmond district school board member attempted to distribute a letter chastising Patrick Henry at the school’s PTA event. Expect this battle to spill over into the school’s reauthorization.
Meanwhile in Madison, Wisc., the school district there rejected a petition by the National Urban League branch there to open a charter school within the city limits. The planned school had already garnered national ire because it originally intended to just serve young men and address the education crisis’ effects on boys. But that wasn’t the reason why the district rejected the proposal. In one of the most-naked examples of the servile relationship between districts and teachers’ unions, the district argued that it couldn’t do so without upsetting the NEA affiliate there. (The affiliate’s executive director made the union’s objections known in print.) The Urban League chapter is doing the right thing by filing suit against the district. Hopefully, Fulton Science Academy and its parents will follow the same path.
The best solution is for states to take over responsibility for authorizing charters and even expand the number of authorizers to include state university systems and nonprofit operators. This is already the reality in some states, including New York and Indiana. Essentially making charters local education agencies in the same manner as districts would also help; Georgia should move to do this during its next legislative session.