Jun 29, 2011

Public Charter School Head Reflects On Georgia Court Ruling (Or, How Will I Fuck With Education Now?!)

Dr. Monica Henson is executive director of Provost Academy Georgia, the state's first virtual charter school serving high school students exclusively. A graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Building Excellent Schools fellowship for charter school leaders as well as a past National Board Certified Teacher, she has also served as an institute director for The New Teacher Project. Dr. Henson has worked in both district and charter schools for more than 20 years.

The recent Georgia Supreme Court decision rendering the Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional has wrought a devastating blow to education reform in the Peach State. The state commission had been authorized to approve and direct funding to public charter schools, but the ruling will allow only local boards of education to do that.

The decision essentially returns our state to the situation where local schools boards hold all the financial cards and control over public education, removing the opportunities for families to have choices and options for their children's public schools (except those choices provided by the districts).

Prior to the legislation that created the Charter Schools Commission, and gave it the authority to direct equitable funding to the schools it authorized, charter school applicants were at the mercy of local school districts to secure local funding to operate. If a local school board denied a charter petition, the only avenue available was to apply for a state charter and lose the opportunity for the critical local funding. The Supreme Court decision has returned us to that situation. State chartered schools now can only get state funding. We have gone from receiving approximately $5,200 per pupil to about $2,300.

My school, Provost Academy Georgia, will be the state's first virtual charter high school, serving students in grades 9-12 exclusively. PAGA was approved by the Commission to open this August and has already enrolled 400 students across the state. Virtual charter schools were slated to receive a reduced amount of funding already, compared to brick-and-mortar charter schools (which receive less funding than their traditional district counterparts), but the local share equivalent per pupil was an important component of our budget. The local dollars amounted to about a 40 percent increase in funding above the basic state per-pupil allocation. For every student who enrolls in our school, we would have received dollars equal to what the local school district would have added to its expenditure on each student.

What impact does the ruling directly have on Provost Academy Georgia? Our Commission charter, and the local funding share, has been voided by the Supreme Court ruling, so we have applied directly to the State Board of Education for a state special charter. But our programs will have to be reduced, severely in some areas. A hallmark of our program, which already operates in South Carolina and Colorado, is to provide economically disadvantaged students with laptops and subsidies to pay for Internet service so they can participate in our engaging online curriculum. It is far more difficult to afford this program after losing nearly half our funding. Another aspect that sets PAGA apart from traditional district brick-and-mortar schools and other online schools is that we provide every student with an advisor who stays with the student from enrollment through graduation, ensuring a strong link to a caring adult whose job is to support students and make sure they graduate on time. Along with student-teacher ratios, we will now have to increase our student-advisor ratios.

This financial struggle has been imposed on us just as we embarked on a dialogue with the Georgia Department of Education, the Charter Schools Commission, and the Governor's Office, along with agencies such as Communities in Schools of Georgia, on how virtual high schools can help attack the dropout problem in our state. Online learning has tremendous potential to engage students at risk. Traditional district schools lose thousands of young people to the streets, onto the public assistance rolls, and into jails and prisons. Despite that, defenders of the status quo are doing everything they can to prevent schools like mine from offering another choice to students.

Misinformation is being spread by those intent on stifling the truth about charter schools, which are public but operate with more flexibility than traditional district schools and often serve as models of innovation.

For example, the Georgia School Superintendents Association sent an email message to the superintendents of the districts where Provost Academy applied, as the initial part of our state special charter application process, warning them not to put our request on their board of education meeting agendas. I know this is true because one of the local superintendents showed me the email message when I arrived at his BOE meeting, which had been changed without public notice the date I was scheduled to speak. At another local BOE meeting, the members of the board of education had not been notified by the superintendent of Provost Academy's application. When one board member asked if the request could be put on the agenda, the superintendent answered no, stating that agenda items could only be added with the approval of the BOE attorney. This is not true.

Other Georgia charter school applicants are facing similar roadblocks. In Cherokee County, an attorney requested documents including emails and other communications sent between May 16, 2011 and June 20 that pertain to the proposed Cherokee Charter Academy school. The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days and allows governments to recover costs for employee time and copying. The district responded that it would need $324,608 in advance to begin work, and it would take 463 days to satisfy the request. In effect, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information. That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each.

Teachers in traditional district schools are being told that their jobs may be eliminated if public charter schools continue to be authorized. In Cherokee County, frightened district employees, including many teachers, were given black shirts to wear and told to attend the board of education meetings to protest loudly against the proposed charter school. Incidentally, the BOE had initially denied Cherokee Charter Academy on the grounds the superintendent's recommendation, noting that there was no interest among families in a charter school. Once CCA was approved by the Charter Schools Commission, over 2,000 families applied for the 995 seats available in the lottery.

The absurdity of the behavior of these foot-soldiers in the defense of status quo is exceeded only by the desire of Georgia families to gain access to better options for their children's public education. Thankfully, our elected officials are dedicated to tearing down the walls erected by the GSSA and the Georgia Schools Boards Associations, among other groups committed to preserving the monopoly held by local boards of education, no matter how poorly some district schools serve their children.

The state legislature, the Governor, and the state Superintendent of Schools are working to craft a short-term fix as well as a long-term solution. Bridge funding is needed if schools like PAGA are to survive until a constitutional amendment can be passed and/or the state's education funding mechanism is changed. In the meantime, we are looking at our already emaciated budget and wondering what else can be cut to make sure we can operate on subsistence funding.

The powerful political interests working against giving students more options, for now at least, have won the right to starve charter schools of funding and hold low-income families hostage to their ZIP codes. We at Provost Academy, along with our brothers and sisters in the education reform movement in Georgia and across the country, do not subscribe to the theory that schools are employment agencies for adults. We are committed to providing our students with a rigorous education and doing everything we can to ensure that they graduate on time, ready for college, career, and/or military service.

Public education should be about helping students create choices for themselves. It also should be about allowing families choices in where and how their children are educated. A quality public education can save a young person's life and help a child born into poverty climb into the middle class as a young adult. In Georgia however, public education, at least as practiced by some of our school districts, seems to be all about keeping dollars in the pockets of those who are committed to perpetuating the status quo.

The views presented on our guest blogs are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of StudentsFirst. We thank all of our guest bloggers for their thoughtful perspectives.

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