By Nancy Jester
As a member of the DeKalb County Board of Education, I have been reading with great interest, the news and debate about the Charter School Amendment that will be on the ballot in November. The usual groups that purport to speak for their members are lining up against it. The Georgia State Superintendents Association (GSSA), the Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) and various teacher organizations. This is to be expected. Change is never easy and those who make significant earnings from the status quo are always reticent to embrace it.
As a requirement of law, I must participate in annual training. The GSBA puts on these training sessions. There is a large conference in June of each year in Savannah where board members from around the state gather to participate in the training and meetings. For the past two years, your tax dollars have paid for me to attend these required seminars and meetings as is the case for most (if not all) board members around the state.
As I sat in the communications seminar, I was told by a presenter that “Education is not designed to be customized.” I wondered if he had an iPod or was he still listening to 8-track? After a break, another presenter went on to talk about the Charter School Amendment and how that would cede local control to “bureaucrats up in Atlanta”. She went on to discuss how best to run a campaign against the amendment; including how to educate employees of school districts to talk with parents about the issue. I was very uncomfortable seeing how your tax dollars were being used to promote these ideas. This year, I had the honor of serving as DeKalb’s voting delegate to the GSBA. At this meeting the GSBA votes to take official positions on various issues. Among the positions the GSBA will be advocating for in the upcoming legislative session are (1) that elections for Boards should be non-partisan (they are in DeKalb but many counties hold partisan board elections) and (2) the State Superintendent should be appointed rather than elected. I found these positions to be contrary to their profession of faith in local control. I voted against these positions. I’m perplexed why the GSBA is even taking a legislative position on these matters. Perhaps it is illustrative of their true motivations. This should all make us examine their position on the Charter School Amendment more closely.
As I stated above, I understand those opposed to the Charter School Amendment fear the change that it brings to their realm. But it is past time to provide another tool to the hands of parents and dedicated teachers – a tool that releases them from the constraints and control of highly bureaucratic school districts and “one size fits all” approaches. Is it a panacea for all that ails education in Georgia? No. Indeed, all charter school proposals will not be approved and, some that are, will fail and be closed. Unfortunately there seems no effective and swift mechanism to close traditional schools that fail generations of children.
The discussion about “mechanism” brings me to an important point. Indeed, it is the central point of reformation that we need to discuss. In the early part of the 1900’s there were well over 100,000 school districts; there are now less than 14,000. We see increasing monopolization of public funding in education into large, Soviet-style, command and control education distribution systems. It is ironic that as competition and ingenuity have provided us with more individual choices and freedoms, our education distribution system has gone in the other direction. Customization and choice are the natural outcomes of competitive forces shaping a marketplace over time. I’m reminded of the quote attributed to Henry Ford, “You can have any color car you want, as long as it’s black.” Imagine if that were the case today for cars! But, for some reason, we accept this in education. In fact, we’ve gone backwards, offering a less customized, less responsive system. Education must be customized to be effective and it must be responsive to the community it serves. If we continue to fail on these metrics then the system will suffer the same fate as the Soviet economic distribution model. I suggest reading the lesson plan (link below) provided by the Foundation for Teaching Economics. This lesson provides a cautionary tale on the types of crisis that befall a distribution system that has no mechanism to receive signals and respond efficiently to them.
Some critics of the Charter School Amendment confuse the matter by suggesting that having a method to start a school that is not controlled by the local board of education, is tantamount to the removal of “local control”. They maintain this, despite the fact that a group of citizens would have to organize, plan, petition, govern and ultimately send their children to the charter school. That is the ultimate local control – it is micro control – it is parent control. Why are school boards and superintendents fearful of this? They often try to tell us that money will be diverted to these charters and away from their system; thus hurting the education of the remaining students. They neglect to address that they are now not responsible for the students at the charter school. They do not point out that with the absence of these students they lose only a portion of the funding for those students. They do not reconcile the equation – they will have fewer students but more money per student. I don’t doubt that they want what is best for children but their perspective is clouded by the fact that they make a living from the status quo.
Having a way for communities to come up with an innovative, responsive educational product is consistent with local control. It is also wholly consistent with the quintessential American notion of Republic. America was not designed to be a democratic tyranny of the majority. The rights of minority groups were protected and codified in our Constitution. Resisting tyranny, removing monopoly power, competing, innovating – these are all American and Georgian ideals. The forces of modernity will not dissipate. The winds for these changes will not calm. Education and how we distribute it to our children will eventually be shaped by more customization not less; by more responsiveness to community; by more freedom. That is where the future takes us. Please join me and reject the discussions of money and control. Please join me to improve the educational lives of Georgia’s children. Vote YES on the Charter School Amendment this November.
DeKalb County Board Of Education