Monday, September 15, 2008

State Takeover of Schools?

Or, Accreditategate 3

Back before the distractions of Hurricane Gustav and Sarah Palin, readers here and in the NOLA blogosphere were having some important conversations on education.

There are several different tracks to this ongoing conversation, but one discussion resonated loudly (especially on other blogs) and one has repeatedly gone over like the proverbial lead balloon (on this blog). Those respective discussions are A) the political implications and effectiveness of the charter school movement encouraged in the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans (a lot of discussion) and B) the problem that most public New Orleans schools, especially those in the Recovery School District, are not accredited nor has anyone I've spoken to within that organization expressed knowledge of a plan for the RSD to become accredited, or expressed a lack of knowledge about what accreditation entails.

Leave it to my home state to bring both of these conversations threads together. Examinations of policy are so much easier when you have comparisons to point out.

Situation New Orleans: Before Katrina, you had a troubled school system before Katrina in 2005. The OPSB was troubled financially, physically, structurally. I believe that there were only a handful of schools with a recognized accreditation (from the Southern Association of Collges and Schools). When the storm hit, the state took the opportunity to take over most of the New Orleans area public schools with a creation known as the Recovery School District or RSD. OPSB got to keep a handful of schools from the old system, many of which did retain accreditation.

The RSD had actually existed before Katrina, I am told, as a state organization to help administer continually failing schools around the state. I do not think this organization was prepared (from an infrastructure standpoint) to take over 120+ schools in New Olreans. The 2006-2007 school year is a testament to this.

But, after looking at the history of the RSD in New Orleans, I have come to believe that this organization existed primarily to write contracts with the state and charter school organizations, and eventually divest itself of day to day control of most schools in New Orleans in favor of charter schools.

Much of the debate surrounding charter schools has to do with their political origin. Are they motivated more by progressive ideals to improve education with new ideas, especially with respect to at-risk urban and rural populations? Or are they motivated more by reactionary ideals to privatize education with 'market based solutions,' erode local control and break teachers' unions? While I think there is a combination: charter schools staffed by honest reformers but funded by organizations with regressive agendas, there is no denying that citizens who have grown up or have to raise their children in such at risk areas are willing to buy into either philosophy if it just gives their kids a better education and safer learning enviroment. If the teachers' union couldn't help fix the old system, why keep it? If experienced teachers worked for years in a failing system, why keep them? If so many problems came from Orleans Parish school board members and the corruption of that body over the years, why let them keep running things?

The rest of the debate surrounding charter schools has to do with that last question: do they give those kids a better education and learning environment? Do they deliver on their promise, regardless or political philosophy? Are they spending their budget money wiser, or are they just better funded from their parent organizations?

And a real kicker: if the RSD's primary unstated job is to act as the contractor between the state and the charter schools, what market incentive do the administrators have to run the non-charter schools well? While I worked in the RSD (and I hear about this even now), every security-risk-problem-child cannot be properly disciplined because of state law. Nothing could happen to those kids, they had to be kept around teachers they had threatened and students they posed a risk to, and the RSD and the state refused to remove them from traditional schools. Students like this are the ones who have more difficulty getting into charter schools. So conditions at the traditional schools continue to bolster the charter schools argument. Hasn't anyone heard of something called a "conflict-of-interest?"

Noticiably absent from this debate is the lack of interest in accreditation, and the fact that not one RSD school, traditional or charter has accreditation right now, nor have I heard of any school traditional or charter, making plans to apply for accrediation. Notwithstanding that holding New Orleans schools to accreditation standards (for example, SACS) would make learning conditions for students and working conditions for teachers subject to peer review from an outside source.

I could go on, but it is comparison time.

Enter Clayton County: 50,000 students, an at risk urban population in metro Atlanta. A school board that refuses to stop playing games. A population that somehow cannot get rid of these awful school board members now advocating for a state takeover of schools.

Sound familiar?

So the State of Georgia is now entertaining options that would give the state a little more say in how local school boards go about their business. While the "one bitten, twice shy" adage comes into play in my own mind, especially after serving a year in the RSD schools, Georgia seems to be looking at a much less invasive plan to deal with a very real problem. I mean, like all states, Georgia has problems with local school boards and members engaging in shenanigans. Clayton county was stripped of accreditation because of "dysfunctional" and "unethical" behaviors by school board members. Glynn County schools were put on probation for many of the same reasons back in 2005 - 2006.

And, in Georgia, accreditation means something, as the Athens Banner Herald sums it up: "students who graduate from the suburban Atlanta district may not be eligible for some scholarships or admission to many colleges."

And here the issue raises its head again: why is it that local residents cannot control their own school boards? Why do locals look at their home districts and see that a state takeover is a better option than retaining local control of schools? This problem isn't just a Georgia problem or a Louisiana problem, it is a problem all over the South and probably all over the nation.

It will be worth watching to see which state's answers to those questions end up working out.

HTs (and links): Athens bloggers JMac at Safe As Houses and Hillary at Antidisingenuousmentarianism, who are noting benefits and expressing skepticism with Georgia's plan.


S.A.W.B. said...

With regard to both situations, when the constituents consistently and willingly elect the corrupt, the incompetent, and the useless to lead the schools that they are putting their children in, perhaps it's overdue that the greater interests of the state step in, and take charge, temporarily, or permanently.

Clayton County has had it's chances, and continues to miss the point. When the first fear on the minds of the interim superintendant is the recruitment of the 'star' athletes from the district, rather than, say, trying to fix the accreditation mess, you can sort of see that this is not a surface-level issue.

Charter schools may not be a perfect fix, but they deserve at least as long a chance as the NEA and teachers unions have had to screw up the educational system in this country.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

The thing I'm wondering about is why these localities can't seem to get reasonable folks into their school boards. This kind of thing tells me there is something wrong with the way school boards are constructed: either there are no guidelines whatsoever and all newly elected officials are unaware of what their jobs are; or there is so little constituents can do to affect the school board members once they've been elected that said members just don't care.

That being said, it seems more a board and superintendent issue than an individual schools issue. I take Glynn County as my example. Though the individual schools were far from perfect, they were at least functioning in the capacity one usually associates with a school. Our problem was with specific board members who couldn't get their stuff together. (Luckily, there were enough reasonable folks on our school board that things got fixed).

But such issues of leadership do affect individual schools over time.

Charter schools can be subject to the same shortcomings in leadership, as can the NEA and the teacher's unions. Thier resultant effects are just far more limited in comparison to board and administration failures.

But this still doesn't answer the why is it so difficult for some localities to get functional school leaders? Glynn County doesn't share a lot in common with Clarke County or Clayton County, but they've all had accreditation issues in the past several years.

And it ain't like there's some dearth of public involvement in those places. Why are school boards so hard to change?

S.A.W.B. said...

I don't know the specifics with the Clarke or Glynn county people, but I looked up the bios of the Clayton County board while it was still intact. 8 of the 9 board members, and the superintendent, all had functionally questionable degrees, mostly extraordinarily narrowly focused liberal arts studies and certificates, one or two of which were from academically sketchy 'colleges'. Almost all the board members had done nothing but work in the school system for their entire career, when they weren't pursuing more vocationally-questionable education. No one on the board had been involved in anything close to an entrepreneurial enterprise, had any work experience outside of the school system, or had anything more difficult than an English degree.

With that in mind, it was wholly not unexpected that the Clayton County board would proceed to run the district directly into the dirt, since no one involved likely saw any problem in running things the way they had likely always been run. Clayton County schools have never been known as bastions of academic excellence, but they didn't need help pumping water into the ship.

But, still, these are the people that the constituents chose to make the decisions regarding their children's education. Career educators, who think that the system is fine, and everybody just needs a hug. As you might well opine, paT, from your brief tenure as a M.A. candidate in Education, the teaching of teachers is a laughable exercise.

My long-winded, rambling, point is, is that perhaps the constituents in all three cases, like so many other troubled districts, are so used to just electing educators to their local boards, and fear anyone outside of the bastion of 'education' have any sway over their precious snowflakes, that the cycle perpetuates itself ad infinitum.