Atlanta lawmakers look closely at Dublin charter schools

mlee@macon.comFebruary 7, 2013 

ATLANTA -- A bill that would let parents shut down failing schools or remove all employees is the only major piece of education legislation to appear in the Georgia General Assembly so far this year.

More bills may come up, however, as education leaders study charter schools, including ones in the Dublin system.

If a majority of a failing school’s parents sign a petition, and that petition gets school board approval, the school would be forced to turn into a charter or undertake a turnaround plan under House Bill 123 by state Rep. Ed Lindsey, R-Atlanta.

Charters are private schools that get public money, but they are exempt from some of the rules and regulations that govern public schools. Their day-to-day activities are directed by their operators, which could be parents or nonprofits.

The turnaround plans outlined in HB 123 could include ousting all of a school’s staff and administrators.

State Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon, is skeptical of the trigger.

“We have a very important mechanism when it comes to school boards and turnover. That’s the vote,” he said.

State Rep. Nikki Randall, D-Macon, is undecided.

“I’m not sure yet. Even if it’s effective, how sustainable is it?” She said she hopes parents are paying attention when they cast their school board vote.

In Dublin city’s charter system, parents already have more management power than in most places in Georgia. It’s making a positive difference, says its boss.

“We’re trying to give everybody in our school system the idea that, ‘Hey, let’s innovate. Let’s find what it takes to reach all those children,’ ’’ Dublin City Schools Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter said Wednesday. He was speaking at a joint meeting of the House Education and Senate Education and Youth committees, a session that drew dozens of lobbyists and activists too.

By his figures, 82 percent of Dublin students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, an indicator of poverty.

Charter systems or individual schools must follow basic state and federal rules, such as providing for students who have disabilities.

But as charters, they also have flexibility in certain areas. Charter school teachers don’t have to be state-certified, for example. And class sizes can exceed state-mandated caps.

When Dublin went with charters in 2011 and allowed parents to choose their children’s school, Ledbetter said, doubters feared that poor children’s parents wouldn’t get involved and that races might resegregate.

Instead, 90 percent of parents signed up for schools on the first day of registration, and students were not segregated by race.

“Parents, whether they’re middle class parents or in poverty, they care about their children,” Ledbetter said. “You may not always see them because they may be working two jobs to make ends meet. But they do care.”

Charters aim to capture some of that parent power, but there’s a “learning curve,” he explained.

His schools’ governing boards must interview teacher and principal candidates, for example, and make recommendations to him. Or they can decide to put more students in one classroom so they have extra money to spend elsewhere.

He’s still working on encouraging parents to take full ownership of their new powers, emphasizing the message to governing boards: “You have the authority and the responsibility to do the decision-making.”

Dublin school results are still not where Ledbetter wants them to be. Some scores still need to be higher, though others, such as high school writing, exceed the state average. Discipline problems and absences are down.

Back at the state Legislature, charters and flexibility are popular, especially among the Republicans from well-off Atlanta suburbs and a few in-town Democrats who represent poorer constituencies.

“What you’ve been able to do, it seems to me, this is something we ought to be replicating,” state Sen. Fran Millar, a Republican from the well-heeled Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, told Ledbetter at the informational hearing.

Last year, in a hard-fought battle, Republican lawmakers launched a constitutional amendment to allow charters to get permission to operate from the state. Previously, only local school boards could give that OK.

Elected school boards do not oversee charters as closely as they do traditional schools.

Cutting back on that oversight is one thing that makes some charter opponents nervous.

But given the near super-majority of Republicans in this year’s Legislature and support from some Democrats, it should be easy to pass charter-friendly rules.

Proponents will need to move soon. The annual 40-day legislative session is already more than a quarter finished.

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