By Erika Harris
Co-Chair of GLASS (Georgians for Local Area School Systems)
As young as the United States of America is, our public education history is even more juvenile. And as such, we are learning the ropes and constantly working to improve and meet our responsibility of educating, in an equal and effective way, each of our youngest citizens. Through our brief history of public education, we see that it is full of twists and turns, old and current – all to respond to the changing needs of our student populations and learning expectations.
Some of these decisions have been forward thinking, and some reactive measures to extreme educational crises.
In 1945, the Georgia Legislature and constituents responded to a statewide crisis in education. Severe inequalities existed in; school facilities, curriculum, teacher quality, teacher pay, etc. The funding for schools was haphazard and at a certain point, schools were only able to stay open for three and a half months during a year – costing schools and districts accreditation and sending Georgia spiraling into educational failure.
Realizing that there was no continuity in the control mechanisms of school houses or districts, and that because of an extreme number of single school systems and tiny schools districts being fiscally and instructionally unstable, Georgia made an effort to consolidate schools into county districts to: equalize educational opportunities through increased county oversight and to increase the efficiency of funding through the same county control mechanisms.
A constitutional amendment was passed in 1945 in Georgia that created a cap on the number of school districts in Georgia and furthermore prohibited the creation of any municipal controlled school district from that point forward. The only door left open as it pertained to school district “creation” was through the consolidation of grandfathered-in municipal school systems into county systems, or by allowing county systems to consolidate with other county systems.
The response to the educational crisis by the legislature and electorate in 1945 provided important and direct benefits at that point in time. However, what was a benefit then, has become a liability today through its inflexibility as it relates to deconsolidation.
Back when the amendment was passed metro Atlanta looked very different than it does today. As an example, DeKalb County back in 1945 was a rural district, serving approximately 9,000 students. Today, DeKalb County services more than 10 times that many students, nearly 100,000.
In 2013 education looks very different than 68 years ago. We have become more attuned to individualizing the educational experience of our students to ensure that they meet their highest potential, we have a greater offering of in-school programs, and a wide variety of curriculums and instructional methods available to us. Our teachers are among the most highly educated of our constituents, often holding master’s degrees and beyond.
And we spend more per pupil today, adjusted for inflation, than we ever have. Our schoolhouses have often become second homes for our student populations, offering after school enrichment and intervention programs, having students spend more waking hours in school than at home.
And while the above is a phenomenal improvement and a direct result of the foresight of those in 1945, the current limitation of the amendment is where we begin to see a disconnect between ideology and reality.
Every school district’s goal is to meet the needs of every student, to guarantee each a quality education. Many districts are living up to this mission. However, others are not. And when you look at the data, you find that the school districts that are often missing the mark are the ones who are either supersized or are incredibly small.
Through this lens, the story of education becomes much like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; this school district is too small, this school district is too large, this school district is just right.
Now, it is difficult to draw a blanket statement and say that all super-districts are failing to meet the needs of their students or that all small districts are failing. They aren’t. But there are districts out there that are failing their student population – from both ends. When a district shows itself incapable of meeting the needs of each of their students, to ensure that each is being provided the opportunity to meet their highest potential – whether they are high performers or students struggling to meet grade level expectations, that school district is failing its student population.
Gone are the days of one-size fit all, top-down education policy making. Education has become too complex, too large, and the needs of our students too diverse and important to treat education that way.
Today, our educational systems need to be able to flex with the fast-changing needs of our student populations, to allow school-houses to identify the needs of their learning community and implement a learning experience that will bring out the very best in each student. This experience includes (but is not limited to); school day and calendar organization, curriculum and instruction programs, data collection (standardized testing), after-school programs, parent-education programs, teacher training, the hiring of faculty to ensure proper vision-matching, financial management of resources and allocation of these resources.
And when a school district shows an inability to do the above, it begs the question, “Is that district sized and organized properly to be able to service its student body in an effective and far reaching manner?”
If a school district is too small, and struggles to financially support a diversity of needs for its students, the Georgia constitution allows for these small districts to consolidate into a neighboring one, so as to maximize the funding and more effectively and efficiently deliver a high quality education to its students.
However, today when a supersized school district shows an inability to meet the needs of all of its students, there is no response mechanism that would allow for deconsolidation to bring an unmanageable district down to the “right size.”
House Resolution 486 seeks to amend the current state constitution to allow for the creation of local school systems in municipalities created after 2005. It also allows for any other municipalities who share a contiguous border with the post-2005 cities (regardless of county lines) to band together to form a local school system.
This amendment gives a voice to these localities and allows them the option to seek local control over their schools – to provide a tailed and high quality education for their students. It does not force deconsolidation for those municipalities who do not want it, it simply provides the option for those who see the need and can show that a local school system for their area is feasible.
HR 486 is an important stepping-stone for education in Georgia as it provides an opportunity for local municipalities who are attuned to their students’ needs to customize their school system and be highly responsive to their community – thereby helping to ensure a high quality education where each student can reach their highest potential. Which is after all, the ultimate goal in education.