It’s a Must: Say YES to Fixing Georgia’s Failing Schools

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The opposition to Georgia’s opportunity school district referendum has stockpiled millions of dollars to fight against desperately needed measures to help students in failing schools.  The opponents of Amendment 1, which voters will consider this November, include the Georgia Association of Educators and the Geogia AFL-CIO, along with many other members of the public school establishment.  The National Education Association has dedicated 1.5 million dollars for an ad campaign to oppose the Opportunity School District, and opposition groups recently spent $730,000 to run television ads against the initiative.

The Opportunity School District initiative, known as Amendment 1, addresses the 127 failing schools in Georgia that have not attained a 60 percent score for the last three consecutive years on the Georgia Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Performance Index.  The Opportunity School District (OSD) is a proposed constitutional amendment that must receive voter approval on November 8th, and is modeled after similar initiatives in Louisiana and Tennessee.  This legislation will allow the state to temporarily step in to aid schools that have struggled for years to successfully educate students, who are compelled to attend based on their zip code.  The state’s involvement would last anywhere between 5 to 10 years and then would return to local control.

Recently, Governor Nathan Deal presented his case in support of the OSD at the Georgia Education  Leadership Institute:

Let’s start talking about the children.  Let’s make sure that our schools serve their best interests and change them when they don’t.  Let’s end a status quo that does not produce results, despite ever-greater sums of money.  Let’s listen to the numbers – which have no agenda – instead of to the advocacy groups and resentful partisans who do.

He addressed the constant demands by opposition groups to simply spend more money on education in Georgia:

…I worked with the General Assembly to allocate a total of $8.9 billion in state funds for K-12 education in the FY 2017 budget.  That includes $300 million in additional funds for salary increases for educators….You know, it’s funny that we often get accused of cutting spending on education, when in actuality we’ve increased it every year that I’ve been in office.  In fact, my administration has spent more of the state budget on education than any administration in the past 50 years since Governor Carl Sanders was in office.

He continued his address stating:

But as I said at this very same venue last year, the underlying issues facing our classrooms today – the challenges that often lead to academic failure – cannot be solved by simply throwing more state dollars at the issue.  And we know that money alone does not result in improved student performance because over the forty-year period between 1970 and 2010, education spending nationally increased 185 percent in the United States while performance on our national exams remained the same.

Many opponents of Amendment 1 argue, as they almost always do, that improving education can be done by allocating more funding for education.  Current opposition also includes a rejection of the state’s involvement in education in favor of continuing local control.  But if local control has continually yielded schools that cannot properly educate students, then why should that failure continue to be enabled and funded?

The Georgia Federation of Teachers website includes this dubious statement on why voters should oppose the referendum: “What parents, educators and community members really want is schools where educators are respected and well-supported, and children can get a well-rounded, vibrant curriculum.”  As a parent, I can assure you that my chief priority in the education of my own children is, instead, a stellar education that guarantees a bright future for my kids, rather than propping up a school that continues to fail.

Georgia must improve these schools that have already failed to educate 68,000 students, regardless of how loudly powerful bureaucrats, lobbyists, and interest groups that act in the interest of adults may complain.

-Rhonda Gatch

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It’s Only Fair: Charter School Students Deserve Equal Funding

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Rep. Angela Williams of Colorado stands up for all kids to get a high-quality education.

For Representative Angela Williams of Colorado, educational choice is all about what’s right for the kids and what’s right for the teachers.  Her district was one of the hardest hit by economic downturn, and a lot of funding for education comes from property taxes.  Unapologetically, Rep. Williams speaks up for kids and families who need high-quality public school options.  “It is not a Republican or a Democrat issue.  It’s an issue for our kids,” she insists.  She went on to explain, “I received a lot of push back from the African-American community.  But I cannot stand by and allow kids to go to failing schools.”

Rep. Williams was a business woman for 14 years and serves as Majority Caucus Chair as well as Co-Chair of the Colorado Black Democratic Legislative Caucus.  She represents a diverse community and is a strong voice for improving education in Colorado’s public schools.  She stated that she carries certain legislation that increases school choice because of her passion- not politics.  Rep. Williams is a fearless voice for equitable mill sharing and appropriating funding for facilities and buildings.  She calls for a level playing field for all types of public schools, including charter schools.  A key ingredient to the success of charter schools in Denver is equitability and fairness to all kids, including the ones in Rep. Williams’ district.  This cooperation at the local level is achieved by including as many community stakeholders as possible, and strong leadership like that of the representative and other community leaders is crucial.

Funding for charter schools in Colorado is allocated with an equitable approach.  In the Denver area, charter school networks such as DSST and Strive are flourishing thanks to cooperation in sharing tax dollars at the state and local level.  However, this philosophy of collaboration that has fed the success of Denver charter schools is nonexistent in many states.  In Georgia, local school boards and professional organizations that represent the interests of adults and lobby for legislation, such as the Georgia Association of Educators and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, put up roadblocks to the success and growth of charter schools at every juncture.

The Georgia Charter Schools Association website states that “finding a facility can be the biggest stumbling block to launching a charter school in Georgia.”  Charter schools must lease and maintain facilities out of general operating funds.  Traditional public schools do not have to rent buildings for their schools, but local school districts are frequently unwilling to cooperate in allowing charter schools to utilize available buildings.  It is common in Georgia to see buildings owned by school districts going unused and falling into disrepair.  Georgia passed a law in 2013 to provide access to unused buildings but little has changed in how local school districts handle the vacant properties, which were paid for with taxpayer dollars for the education of all students.

 

Today, charter schools serve students in 43 states and are usually attended by students from diverse communities.  Over 2.5 million students currently attend charter schools in the United States.  These public schools successfully educate students from low-income homes in neighborhoods where traditional public schools are failing.  Persistent attempts to marginalize, limit, and weaken charter schools simply make no sense.  Shouldn’t Americans be willing to use public taxpayer dollars to educate kids in an environment that is safe and where innovation is breaking the monotony of dropout factories that fail kids year after year?  It only seems fair.

 

-by Rhonda Gatch

Land of Opportunity: Denver Still Represents

 

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Graduates shared their stories of being students at DSST of Denver and their successes in college thanks to their high school.

 

Presidents, such as John F. Kennedy, referred to America as “a city upon a hill”.  President Reagan called it a “shining city on a hill.”  The famed phrase derives from the Sermon on the Mount and was reiterated by newcomers to the New World as far back as 1630 when John Winthrop uttered the phrase to the New England colonists.  Even our current president has referred to our country as a beacon of freedom.  But upon examination of the failures of our public education system, one finds little freedom in school assignments that are carried out according to zip code mandates with no actual school choice for individual families and student needs.  America has struggled in recent decades to educate its own citizens- so is there any hope of success for educating recent immigrants and First Generation families?

After Denver Public Schools (DPS) struggled for too many decades with schools that were failing to educate kids, new solutions were established.  Charter schools in Denver have flourished due to a stunning amount of collaboration between the local school districts and the charter schools those districts have authorized, even including sharing of local funding.  These schools enjoy tremendous support from the surrounding communities, as well as from many community leaders, such as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Charter schools are public schools and serve all children, but schools that thrive like DSST, a group of STEM-focused charter schools with seven campuses, and STRIVE Preparatory Schools, are pioneering a new model of education.  DSST and STRIVE have produced amazing successes for students in Denver focusing primarily on providing college preparatory schools, attaining 100% acceptance into 4-year colleges for DSST graduates and 92% acceptance for new graduates of STRIVE.

The numbers at both of these Denver-based charter school networks illustrate achievements that far surpass those of traditional public school students of DPS.  STRIVE began ten years ago and is currently comprised of 87% students from low-income homes, 97% students of color, and 42% English Learners.  STRIVE students experienced an average of 1.5 years of growth in achievement, and 97% of elementary students met or exceeded academic growth on STEP performance standards.  Similarly, DSST charter network schools are closing the achievement gap at a far more successful rate than results achieved by traditional schools in DPS, as well as achieving far greater AP college readiness in courses across the board.  DSST is also made up of students who primarily come from low-income homes with two-thirds of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.

In fact, according to the Colorado Department of Education 2016 triennial report on the state of charter schools, Colorado’s charter public schools are enrolling students of color and English Language Learners at higher rates than traditional public schools in the state.  These charter school students are continuing to outperform their counterparts in traditional public schools according to current state measurements of achievement.

What are some of the differences in teaching methods and expectations in a DSST classroom as opposed to a traditional DPS classroom?  For one thing, there are more students who are from low-income homes and who are far more racially diverse.  DSST as well as STRIVE maintain a laser-like focus on preparation for college for all students.  One reason for this decision to prepare students from every background for college is due to the outlook for future jobs in places like Denver, Colorado which indicates that a college education will be required for careers in the fastest growing job fields.  Findings published in the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce indicate that of 11.6 million jobs available since the economic recovery, 11.5 million were filled by adults who had attended college.  In other words, merely 100, 000 jobs went to those who were high school graduates only.

Three young women who were recent graduates of DSST in Denver explained some of the differences they had noticed while attending the school, as well as reflecting back on, their time in high school.  Two of the graduates were from families that were First Generation Americans.  They described the special attention from their teachers at DSST who spent time with them as they chose the colleges to which they would apply.  The teachers were more like mentors to them and really cared about them.  They also remembered that their workload was much greater than the study load expected from friends who attended other high schools in the area and always seemed to have more free time, but they acknowledged that this disciplined work ethic paid off for them, giving them the edge needed to succeed in college.  DSST is a STEM school that requires students to complete an internship related to future career choices.  All these factors together produced graduates who were full of confidence and were excellent communicators.

It’s easy to look at the incredible results achieved by Strive & DSST and to take their success for granted. It’s also easy to imagine that these amazing results could have occurred through some other means, educational methods or philosophy, or legislative action. But as skeptical as some onlookers may be, no one can deny the achievements of these students in Denver.  Denver embodies the tradition of a city on a hill, in fact it is the Mile-High City that is rising to new heights.

 

-Rhonda Gatch

Rhonda is a mom of two, and she was a secondary teacher for ten years.  She is passionate about the need to improve, as well as to expand, the educational opportunities available to families. Rhonda is co-founder and CEO of the organization, Moms for School Choice, and resides in the Atlanta area.

 

Access Denied: Georgia Parents who Can’t Obtain Education Funds for School Choice

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For many families in Georgia, providing an education for their children is a huge sacrifice. Many middle class families rake and scrape in order to afford to provide tutoring or expensive therapy for challenges their children face such as a speech problem or issues requiring a reading specialist or occupational therapy. Other families pay for a good education for their children by moving into a great school district and paying a high mortgage or rent that is difficult to swing, and that may even lead to financial hardship for the family. For all of these situations, providing more access to the funds that are collected to cover the education costs of students in this state, including postsecondary education costs, is only reasonable.

In this past state legislative session in Georgia, Representative Mark Hamilton of Cumming introduced house bill 243, legislation that would provide such access to state education funds via a debit card that would link to an education savings account, much like a health savings account. (Senator Hunter Hill introduced a similar bill in the Senate, SB 92.)  An educational savings account (ESA) such as the one proposed in HB 243 would allow access to state funds “which may be used for qualifying educational expenses, including future postsecondary education expenses.”

Qualifying educational expenses” would include expenses families face such as tuition at participating schools, textbooks, payment for tutoring, purchasing curriculum, and online learning programs as well as many more specific expenses that families frequently incur when trying to provide for the individual learning needs of a child.  Unused portions of the education savings account (ESA) would roll over into the following year until graduation.  Then, the amount unused in the account could be used for postsecondary education.

There is definitely support for school choice programs in Georgia according to the 2014 Georgia Education Survey, conducted for the Economics of Education Policy Center at Georgia College & State University. The survey found that more than seven in 10 respondents (70.3 percent) approve of Georgia’s tax credit scholarships. Additionally, more than eight in 10 respondents (80.5 percent) support Georgia’s scholarship program for students with special needs. Deeper examination of the responses reveals that Georgians support providing help for all families, regardless of income level. Nearly seven in 10 (69.4 percent) of respondents agree that tax credit scholarships should be provided for all families, regardless of income, while only 28.3 percent believe that those scholarships should be available to families based on financial need only. Likewise, there is broad support for innovative measures like education savings accounts (ESAs) similar to those that now exist in four other states. Nearly seven in 10 (67.8 percent) of Georgia respondents supported ESA programs like the one in Arizona.

Maureen Downey, an education writer for the AJC, carried out quite a hack job on the concept of education savings accounts in her article “Back from the Dead/ Voucher Bill Disguised as Education Savings Account.”  In it she characterized HB 243 as “a bad anti-public education bill has found new life.”  She went on to state,

But Hamilton’s bill is an extension of the fallacious argument that ‘the money should follow the students because it’s their money’.  It’s not the students’ money. It’s not the parents’ money.

Dear Georgia Taxpayers, Here’s a newsflash for you: You the parent have no right to claim ANY state education funds for your own children if you dare to avoid public education and opt to homeschool your children at your own expense, to utilize online virtual learning, or to pay tuition to a private school (gasp!).

Never-mind the fact that most school choice options in Georgia, including public charter schools, are barred from touching any local tax dollars that are, after all, collected to cover the education expenses of ALL children residing in that school district  in Georgia.  And never-mind the obvious reality that for the plethora of parents in Georgia who decide to pay for either private school or to homeschool, the countless dollars that they must leave behind are a treasure store for the collective community to reap in total for their collective use.  Those local dollars have never been touched nor would they be utilized in any way through education savings accounts as proposed in HB 243, which would use state funds only.  Clearly, Ms. Downey could not be bothered by the public will of Georgians who overwhelmingly support all school choice measures according to survey and polling data, including education savings accounts. Georgia parents don’t even deserve a debit card to access one drop of the funds set aside to educate all of Georgia’s children if they dare to avail themselves of school choice options of any kind!

Hopefully, the entitlement mentality of the argument put forward by Ms. Downey will be disregarded, and the citizens of Georgia will make it crystal clear that they support freedom of choice and a more equitable distribution of the education funding collected for all children in Georgia. When the 2015-2016 Legislative Session begins in Georgia, it should deliver the access to state education funds that is desperately needed to help all the children in Georgia who struggle with individual education challenges, regardless of what means their parents have chosen for their schooling.

-Rhonda Gatch

Image courtesy of  world.edu

It’s Moving Day

If you lived in a town like mine and had childrenarticle-0-188024AC00000578-907_634x657, moving day for your family would be virtually inevitable. My town is quaint with a great community vibe and good governance. We pay a little more in taxes to gain sidewalks, parks, and nice public facilities. My children have grown up here, but soon it will be moving day for us like so many other families I know.

When you go out on any sunny day here, you can’t help but notice all the young families with young children and strollers. But oddly enough, there are very few families of teens or young adults. My town is forever young, except for some retirees who are living out their life here since their adult children live elsewhere. Youth is invigorating in a community although not as invigorating for an economy. Professionals just starting out flock to this town. They start their families here…and then they leave.

What accounts for this diverse flight away from my town that seems to cycle every few years? The school system primarily. Yes, our cute town attracts trendy boutiques and mom and pops, but these ventures frequently do not survive. People move out of this community in droves as soon as they can sell their home and buy a much smaller and more expensive one up the road. Often they remain in this very same large county, but they opt for an overcrowded school that has better track records for educating children. They vote with their feet and pay for a public school with a much higher mortgage rate. It’s not a better home that they are purchasing but rather a more promising future for their kids.

You see, we have lots of great churches with preschools here and then a spattering of some decent elementary schools here and there. But middle schools and high schools are pretty frightening. The toddler years fly by in a frenzy with muffins for moms and donuts for dads. But after we put away the diapers and pull ups, new concerns capture our attention. Moms of preschoolers become obsessed with discussions of schools- public or private? Which brave souls will dare to homeschool? Who is fortunate enough to have one of those great public elementary schools assigned to their lucky zip code? Then when the word gets out and parents log onto a website like Great Schools, the moving plans are hastily made.

For such an ideal community, our schools are shockingly low performing. Secondary schools here face serious problems and fall short of the illusions of suburbia. The realty that Georgia ranks near the bottom in education compared to other states in our region, despite spending more than any of them, becomes apparent when you realize that failing schools are not limited to the boundaries of the inner city.

Parents could simply stay and offer their own children as guinea pigs or maybe start up a public charter school? But that process takes years as even the newly reinstated Georgia Charter Schools Commission is likely to reject the vast majority of parent and community planned schools. Meanwhile, our children, community, and local businesses are left to flounder. So like survivors fleeing for their lives from a sinking ship, we save our families if we possibly can. Who has time for rearranging the deck chairs when it’s the future of our children that is at risk?

Oh yes, we also have an additional tax for improving schools – at least for building attractive new ones. Our last Ed-SPLOST was assigned by our county’s board of education to make even more improvements to a high school that is one of the top ones in the nation. Meanwhile, families who once moved into a nice new neighborhood discover why it is known as having starter homes when they find out that their elementary school is the oldest one in the entire county. And alas, it has never received SPLOST funds….moving day is around the corner for many of these families.

Private schools are an option for some if they can afford it. But with some careful calculations around the kitchen table, moving into a smaller, older home with a higher mortgage rate starts to seem like a bargain if it buys a new zip code with a new school that is more successful at educating kids. But what about those families who cannot afford to move? They are trapped in a system that assigns schools to families by a series of numbers known as a zip code. Georgia does have a law known as Public School Transfer, but most great public schools quickly fill up and are then – or maybe even sooner? – listed as full and unavailable.

There are answers to these problems, but they are often not embraced or supported by enough families to force real changes and educational reforms. Many mayors are backing plans to bring new schools into their cities – as they should, in order for their communities to survive.  Georgia now ranks a “C” in school choice options on the Parent Power Index issued by the Center for Education Reform. Public charter schools and access to private schools need to be expanded to serve more families since they currently serve a measly two percent or less of Georgia’s students.

In the end, when school choice is expanded and families are no longer trapped in failing schools, more communities, local housing markets, and local economies will be allowed to thrive and stabilize as the result of new freedom to make good educational decisions according to an individual family’s needs – regardless of bank account or zip code.

Image courtesy of www.dailymail.co.uk.

We the Parents will not Accept Excuses

Education reform is a unique issue because it is a nonpartisan one.  In a nation where our citizens and lawmakers are polarized to the point of total gridlock, education reform unites  leaders and parents of widely varying political views.  After all, our kids cannot even vote- but if they could- do you suppose that they would vote for uniform curriculums that follow a two-dimensional, monotonous model of one-size-fits-all methods and strategies from a bygone era of factory efficiency, mass scale, and minimal innovation and individualism?

Would our kids vote to increase their class size and decrease access to technological innovations, in order to secure early retirements and plump pension plans for teachers and administrators?  No, they obviously would not support today’s educational establishment that seeks to preserve its monopoly on power while denying innovation and individualization in the classroom and in communities that have very unique needs.  Our kids need champions who demand alternatives to the status quo which stubbornly clings to our failing educational system, destroying dreams, unique gifts and talents, and curiosity in its path.  Our kids need parents to speak up for them, refusing to accept the relentless pursuit of this tired educational factory model of uniformity that permeates many American schools.

Rest assured that there is a myriad of alternative methodologies and models from which to choose.  And these choices are not untried, thanks to daring independent schools, public magnet schools, and public charter schools.  Research-based education exists, but laziness within this sluggish, lethargic, and unresponsive system prevents its implementation.  Perhaps it seems risky to take bold action, but it is simply foolhardy to refuse to do so.  When kids are languishing every day, eight hours a day, in classrooms that do not begin to meet their needs, hand-wringing and sympathy do not suffice.

Do not tell me that you are a supporter of freedom, free enterprise, competition, or American innovation if you simultaneously stand with the established power-brokers and power-mongers of our public education system.  Do not tell me that you are frustrated and want to find solutions, too, when you deny every opportunity to implement reforms and community level changes.  Parents and concerned citizens must be unafraid and unyielding in calling for immediate action, innovation, and improvement in our children’s educational opportunities.

We must demand more choices, and we cannot accept the excuses of the past when it is the future which our kids will face that hangs in the balance.

-by Rhonda Gatch