THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013
By Kyle Wingfield
Halloween is over, but it’s not too late to revisit some spooky stories from the past.
A year ago, Georgians were gearing up to vote in an election that lacked drama locally. It was clear Mitt Romney would win our electoral votes and that most legislative races would unfold as expected, so the bulk of the intrigue concerned the fate of the charter schools amendment.
In the end, the amendment passed with 59 percent support. But not before Georgians heard all manner of scare tactics from its opponents.
You could practically hear an eerie wind whistling through leaves as opponents warned a flood of new schools lurked over the moonlit horizon.
They pointed to a parallel school system casting its ominous shadow against the wall, while a wailing voice cried “Re-seg-re-gaaaaaaaa-tion!”
Aaahhh! Did you see that?! A headless – er, heartless – for- profit company just jumped out of nowhere and made off with millions of taxpayer dollars!
But now the sun is up, and those frightening tales are turning out to be no truer than your favorite ghost story.
After renewing the charters of 15 previously approved schools in the spring, the state commission just wrapped up its first application cycle since coming back to life. There were 16 applications for new schools to open in autumn 2014, and those scary commissioners approved – brace yourself – exactly …
… one of them. In majority-minority Riverdale.
One of the other 15 ended up being approved by a local school board. Three applicants withdrew from the process, and four were deemed ineligible. Commissioners rejected the other seven.
“Our commissioners are very focused on quality, because of all the scrutiny… in the weeks and months leading up to the referendum vote,” says Bonnie Holliday, the agency’s executive director.
“I think we had a charge off the bat to only approve schools that would offer better educational opportunities than students in those areas were already receiving.”
Rather than seven rejections, amendment opponent and state schools superintendent John Barge predicted an average of seven new approvals in each of the next five years, draining more than $430 million from state coffers during that time.
After just one year, his budgetary trend line already looks to be off by some $70 million.
Not that Holliday expects to have just one approval each year: “Everyone wanted to approve more than one school this year. It’s just when we did a gut check, only one was ready to go. …If we set up a school we don’t truly believe will be successful, it’s not doing anyone any good: the students, the schools or the commission.”
What about those frightening for-profit management companies with which some charter holders (which must be non-profits) work?
Holliday says there are good and bad for-profit managers, just as with their non-profit competitors. “At the end of the day, we really care less about the partnerships the schools enter into than the results those partnerships produce,” she says.
OK, but surely the giant zombie bureaucracy predicted for the new state agency has started spreading across downtown Atlanta, right?
“We have five employees,” Holliday says, “and we’re fully staffed.”
State charter schools bear watching: The whole point of having charter schools is to demand more from them and hold them accountable. But so far, there’s nothing spooky about them.
Kyle Wingfield, an Opinion columnist, writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His column appears Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.