December 12, 2009
Dear Mssrs. Scafidi & Robinson:
For the past few days, I have been reviewing the charter petitions recommended by the Charter School Commission. I must admit that I am disappointed and quite disturbed. Explanations cited by the Commission are in direct contradiction to the legislative intent of charter school law. Furthermore, either White-owned management companies or affluent community groups submitted those petitions recommended. This continual selective practice places minority grassroots groups at a clear and blatant disadvantage. If the true intent of charter schools is to create school choice options for minority and low-income students, close the achievement gap, and involve parents in the educational process, then should not those same individuals have an opportunity at full participation by way of playing an active role in creating schools within their communities?
I have shared these same concerns with the Charter Schools Division earlier this year, as the State Board of Education did not approve our charter petition because our group neither secured nor raised the entire operating budget prior to approval, as required by Andrew Broy. The charter landscape has only slightly changed since then, as it appears that Commission is placing the same barriers before more qualified charter applicants. An abbreviated list of charter petition discrepancies follows below. As the Commission made the recommendations, I rest assured you are more familiar with the petitions and deficiencies.
- Board membership
- Inadequate funds budgeted for Special Education
- Conflict of interest with a board member being a paid school employee
- Teacher salaries
- Leadership competency – Contracting with EMO/CMO
Parents as Board Members
If I am not mistaken, the Obama Administration is challenging parents to become actively involved in their children’s education. As a parent and educator, it is my opinion that assembling a board comprised of dedicated parents ensures sound decision-making as it relates to children and a quality instructional program. I assume that this is a recent addition to the state’s charter school law and guidance, as Oglethorpe Charter School’s governing board is comprised mostly of parents. Oglethorpe has received federal recognition for the governance structure that includes a high percentage of parents with enrolled students. It is my sincere hope that the application of this rule applied to all charter schools, and not based solely on the proposed location of the school.
Inadequate funds budgeted for Special Education
When drafting a charter petition, it is impossible to state with 100% certainty the school’s composition, unless the proposed school’s location is in a community absent of racial and/or ethnic diversity. This holds true when determining the number of students that will receive services through Special Education. At best, the petitioner can make an educated guess based on the district’s percentage of Special Education participants. Even so, determining the actual programs, e.g., Learning Disability, Emotional Behavior Disorder, etc., must wait until students actually enroll in the school. It is clear to me, a former Special Education teacher, that this is an area of confusion for Commission and State Board of Education members. I do suppose that petitioners can model the practices of traditional districts and track 40-50% of the students into Special Education. I digress.
Conflict of Interest of Board Members
The Internal Revenue Service provides specific guidelines on developing a Conflict of Interest policy for non-profit organizations. If the Commission has a policy beyond that of the IRS, it is imperative that petitioners have access before assembling their boards and hiring key personnel. I noticed that several petitioners received feedback regarding the potential conflict of interest of a board member who was also a potential employee of the charter schools. This is especially troubling considering that several charter schools in existence have individuals serving as founding members and employees. These charter schools have been approved by the local and state boards. In fact, one charter school in Gwinnett County has a husband and wife receiving compensation form the charter school. That, to me, sounds like a clear conflict of interest. Furthermore, other charter schools employ founding members. I digress.
Neither the Commission nor the Charter School Division provides any guidance on setting teacher salaries, or salaries for other employees for that matter. I personally addressed this same issue with Andrew Broy, Clara Keith, and Kathy Cox earlier this year. As none of these individuals is directly involved with an organization’s efforts to recruit qualified and dedicated staff, neither they nor the Commission should have the authority to determine appropriate teacher salaries. The benefits of charter schools are numerous. One of them is the ability for teachers to have some creative freedom within their classrooms, as opposed to teaching to the test. Many teachers are willing to sacrifice a few thousand dollars for the opportunity to work in an environment where they will be treated as professionals and adults; traditional schools tend to devalue the importance of those liberties. It is quite possible that several charter school petitioners already secured verbal commitments from individuals wishing to work at the proposed schools; however, Georgia law stipulates that a teacher cannot sign a new contract while teaching under contract with another school system. As Education experts, all Commission members should possess this information.
“Neither does (insert charter school name here) propose to contract with an educational management organization for the provision of experience in educational services.” Again, if petitioners are required to contract with educational management organizations, then the Commission should make that information available to petitioners before they dedicate months and years to community outreach, marketing, researching, and writing the petition. Furthermore, many grassroots organizations oftentimes spend their own money to cover expenses associated with creating a charter school. If it is the intent of the Commission, legislators, Charter Schools Division, and Kathy Cox to create an EMO/CMO-only charter environment in Georgia, please extend a professional courtesy to students, parents, and educators and make those intentions known locally and nationally.
In closing, I would like to point out the fact that for-profit management companies masked as non-profits have the upper hand here in Georgia. This is evident in their policies of locating schools only in districts where 60%+ of the students qualify for Free and Reduced priced meals, yet none of the parents are directly involved in the creation, management, or daily operations of those schools. That smacks of blatant racism. The laws, State Board of Education members, and Charter School Commission members are perpetuating the unspoken belief that minorities are not qualified to educate their own children, let alone anyone else’s. Spare me the rhetoric of your best friend being (racial/ethnic) or being married to a (racial/ethnic minority), as anyone who recognizes these policies, but says nothing to change them, is just as guilty as those who wrote them.
I have written this letter with an open mind and clear conscience. I am expressing concerns on behalf of those who still have an interest in resubmitting their petitions for future consideration. After spending more than 2 years of my life and time researching and developing a petition, I have accepted that changing Education from the inside may not be correct choice for me. As long as my principles and integrity remain non-negotiable, I am confident that the kind of radical change necessary for Georgia’s families must come from the outside. The Center for Education Reform was obviously extremely lenient in assigning a grade of ‘C’ to Georgia’s charter school law.
Thank you for taking the time to read and consider these observations.
Monise L. Seward, Ed.S.