Charles E. Richardson

What to do when the canary stops singing? Blame the canary

I wish there were a magic bullet. I wish we could fire that bullet into the heart of public education and make everything OK. Along that bullet’s trajectory, all the children would have awakened in a home with two educated parents with good jobs who would send their little bright-eyed little children off to school after a bedtime story, a good night’s rest and a full stomach after eating healthy breakfast.

At their school they would be greeted by well-paid skilled teachers and administrators whose mission in life was to teach each of them as individuals and recognize their various styles of learning so they could open up the doors of the world and watch those same bright-eyes get wide with wonder as they learned new skills.

While in those schools they would be surrounded by choices — music, orchestra, chorus, art, technology, sculpture, math — anything to bring to life their creative juices and reveal their inner talents.

In this idyllic setting, teachers and administrators are valued members of their communities and treated with high respect and honor because everyone understands the weight they carry and the future of the communities they hold in their hands.

I’m sorry. I was dreaming. I know that’s not the world we live in. There is no idyllic setting. That place doesn’t exist, at least not in Georgia, and that’s why I had to vote no on Amendment 1.

It’s not because, if the state takes over a failing school (there are nine in Bibb County) some teachers and principals might lose their jobs. Those employees would be alright. They would be absorbed into the system at other schools. I’m not opposed because the state could come in and commandeer school facilities for up to 10 years. I’m opposed because the state has never run a single school and has no track record for success. If it had a magic bullet to fix failing schools, it should have loaded it up and fired it by now.

How will the state run something it has never run before? It will appoint a superintendent for what it calls an Opportunity School District. That district could eventually run as many as 100 schools across the state. In order to go from zero to 100, you need an engine. That engine, as seen in other states, are private for-profit charter school companies. Ah, there you have it. If you don’t have the expertise, hire it, but at what costs?

There are three other options open to the OSD. It could close the school, turn it over to the State Charter Schools Commission, or tell the local school board to make changes and enter into a contract with the OSD.

Quite frankly, to turn the school over to a not-for-profit or a for-profit company, bastardizes the charter concept. Normally, concerned parents and citizens come together and develop an idea they believe would be good for the education of children. They jump through various hoops and develop plans which must be examined and approved either on the local or state level or both. If approved, other parents, seeing the possibilities for a better education, decide to send their children to that charter school.

In this new scenario, this process could be thrown for a loop. For example, Veterans Elementary is on the takeover list. If the state takes over the school and farms it out to a charter company, will children slated to go there have a choice to go to another school if parents don’t like what the charter company proposes?

If the state takes Veterans over will it remove the team that’s there now and replace them? It’s totally understandable if they do. You want to go to war with your own team. However, where will the new foot soldiers come from? What programs are designed to address the needs of the community surrounding Veterans and other schools like it? What recourse will parents have when the local board of education is out of the picture?

I understand the need for the governor to do something about failing schools. I get that, but let me suggest a different approach. Fix the neighborhoods and you’ll fix the schools. Yes, that takes a long-term commitment and money, something the governor would rather hand over to private interests rather than address the real issues facing public education.

You see, schools are like the canary in the coal mine. The education canary stopped singing a long time ago. We didn’t heed its warning that the air in the community was toxic — full of blight, poverty and ignorance — problems we didn’t want to recognize, because they are so hard to fix. Instead, it’s far easier to blame the poor bird for failing to sing.