Why the DeKalb County School Board Should Turn Down the Charter Cluster

This post was published last year, and I’m republishing it in light of the Driud Hills Charter Cluster’s second attempt at absconding nearly a half dozen DeKalb schools. Dr. Lutenbacher provides academic and personal experiences and reaches a convincing conclusion.

If the Druid Hills Charter Cluster decides to apply to the State Charter School Commission for charter status, Dr. Lutenbacher’s will serve as evidence why the State should turn them down.

This letter first appeared on Maureen Downey’s AJC blog, Get Schooled.  The letter is published with the permission of Dr. Lutenbacher.

My name is Dr. Cindy Lutenbacher, and I am a single, white, full-time working mother of two children in the Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC) district, as well as a DeKalb property owner and taxpayer.  One daughter just graduated from Druid Hills High School and my other daughter is a current student at Druid Hills Middle School.

I have been a teacher for almost three decades and a parent for 18 years.  I have served on the board of the DeKalb charter school, the International Community School and on the Board of the tuition-free, private school the Global Village School.

I am writing to express my deep opposition to the possibility of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster.

Brazenness

mailAt long last, I have been able to attain information about this conversion charter petition, and I am quite honestly appalled at its brazen attempt to create a privately-run school that is funded with taxpayer dollars.  And, at long last, I have taken the hours and hours and hours necessary to review the petition, as well as the 235 requests and rationales for waivers from DCSD standards and policies.  I am told that some of this information was made available three weeks before the vote was taken in August.  I did not know of that availability and probably would not have been able to review it in time; neither was I able to vote during the narrow voting window.  I can only wonder about parents or teachers who have even more limited access to and time for such investigation or voting.

Since that time, I have also learned that the “vote” taken the second day of school was not in violation of the law, but was certainly in violation of ethics.  Those running the voting were wearing tee shirts sporting the logo of the DHCC.  And I understand that the votes were counted by supporters of the charter.  Furthermore, the location of voting was the site most convenient to the supporters of the charter.

The petition “talks the talk” of accountability and adherence to guidelines, laws, and policies, but its absurd list of waiver requests speaks otherwise.  It places all power in the hands of its own, self-selected governing body, a body that was theoretically “elected” in that incredibly flawed voting process on the second day of school at Druid Hills High School.

I would like to address only a handful of my concerns.

Falsehoods

First of all, the petition contains outright falsehoods.  For example, the petition claims that only 5.4% of the students of McLendon Elementary School are ELLs, or English Language Learners.  However, the McLendon Elementary website reveals that 46% of its students are in ESOL classes.  I wonder what definition the DHCC uses to categorize students as ELLs.  Those favoring the charter claim that they used DeKalb County statistics.

The petition also claims that it will follow state and federal laws concerning special needs learners, but its waiver requests demand “flexibility” in fulfilling the needs of students with disabilities.  The petition and waiver documents speak to various methods to best serve students with disabilities, but all of the language allows so much “flexibility” that students with special needs could end up warehoused, or pushed into classes of typical learners (which may be a terrible choice for some), or ousted from the school because of “disciplinary issues.”    Furthermore, if DHCC can somehow mis-categorize English Language Learners at a school, how can anyone trust it to honestly and authentically label and serve students with special needs?

The DHCC waiver requests include waivers for discipline, claiming to use “positive” disciplinary tactics.  That language is all well and good, but when I review the petition and waiver requests, I have deep concern that the DHCC will use its waiver to oust students who do not fit its particular bent, which is clearly toward gifted students.  I am concerned that students of color, students from low-income families, students with disabilities, and students who are ELLs will disproportionately find themselves labeled as “discipline problems,” rather than as children who are true gifts to the world.  They will be removed, so that DHCC can boast of its success.  The process is called “push-out” and it has a venerable history, especially here in the south.  I speak as a lifelong southerner and as a product of public schools in Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia.

The DHCC requests a waiver in terms of class size in order to be “fiscally sustainable.”  This waiver request is an absurdly slippery slope, for once the DHCC realizes the inadequacy of its budget, the class sizes for classes that are not gifted, advanced placement, or otherwise geared toward students with higher test scores—will quite likely balloon, in order to allow the gifted programs to remain small and intimate.

Likewise, the DHCC wants to have full authority and autonomy in transportation issues, including salaries of bus drivers, routes, and accessibility.  I hear the phrase of “fiscal sustainability” in the background there, and I am acutely aware that transportation could easily suffer from budget concerns and become an issue that excludes working class children from attending schools in the DHCC, even though the children would be zoned into a particular school.

Budgetary Ethics

arrow-downIn the same breath that the DHCC requests waivers of all policies relevant to salaries, budget, and personnel, it requests waivers from the DeKalb County School District Code of Ethics and Conflict of Interest policies in order to create its own code of ethics.  One need only have his/her eyes open to see that his scenario is clearly a field that is fertile for abuse.

I was not able to find the DHCC budget on its website, for certain links were not functional.  But a friend with access to a hard copy read aloud certain sections, and we realized that there are enormous gaps in the budget—gaps such as guidance counselors and other essential personnel.  We can only conclude that the DHCC intends such budgetary requirements to come from the DeKalb County School District’s budget.

Odd Demographics

I find it also instructive that even though the student body of the cluster is comprised of 80% students of color, the governing body of the DHCC has only three members of color, two of whom do not live in the cluster district and one of whom lives in Gwinnett County; the DHCC claims that these members have a vested interest in the charter by virtue of students who are in the schools “by choice.”  I cannot help but wonder why the DHCC had to go so far afield to find people of color to support its mission.

The petition also clearly states that only faculty and staff members will be hired or remain in their positions if they support the charter petition.  This requirement is abusive and completely contradictory to the ability and rights of teachers and staff members to have open discussion about this important petition.  Employees at the affected schools have already reported intimidation and silencing.

All of the waiver requests and the descriptions in the petition rely upon one central idea: trust us.  The wording of both documents sounds professional, but the waivers and petition are in fact a sieve of loopholes through which children who do not fit the upper class norm will be excluded and harmed.  If the conduct of the DHCC thus far—with its voting procedures that would have been shameful in the worst dictatorships in the world—is any indication of its trustworthiness, then this petition should be quickly and powerfully denied.

The DHCC talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk.

Filching Taxpayers

This attempt by a primarily upper class group of people to filch taxpayer dollars for an ultimately exclusionary private school endeavor is reprehensible.  For the sake of all our children, I urge you to deny this petition.

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster: In Whose Interest?

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The Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC) proposal has come under scrutiny by the DeKalb County Board of Education, who in the end, will approve or reject the proposal to turn seven schools into charters that will work independently from the county’s education system.

Who Benefits?

I wonder who will benefit from the DHCC charter cluster?

How will the teachers benefit from a new set of rules and regulations that will be used to scrutinize their teaching by an appointed board of directors, who will eventually be comprised by a set of cronies that recommend each other to the board?

How about the students? Will they receive a better education from a cluster that is intent on out performing the present system by using the students as test-taking measuring sticks?

And the parents? They’ll be told that the new arrangement will give them more choice, and that by hiring an out-of-state management company, decisions will be more local and beneficial than they are now. (No, I am not sure if the management company will be from out-of-state, but the odds are 50/50 that it will).

How about the board of directors and the charter management company? How will their management of the public schools in the DHCC differ from the elected school board of education of DeKalb County?  What benefits will they realize?

Tell me, who will really benefit from this arrangement, and what is driving the movement?

Questionable Concerns

In a recent article (“Charter plan prompts questions”) in the AJC that was essentially a critique of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster, I pulled out a few questions included in the article, which was based on the Executive Summary of the DeKalb County School Board review of the DHCC petition  (and I’ve added a few questions of my own). Here are the questions to think about:

  • Why should the board of education approve a proposal that would essentially take $29 million from the district’s funds?
  • Why doesn’t the charter proposal identify pre-K programs for the affected schools?
  • Why are students who need “more support” being shuttled to schools outside the Druid Hills Cluster Dome (See Figure 1)?
  • How do you explain that only 82 of the 482 employees in the cluster responded to a survey about the proposal? Is there really backing from the faculty and administration of these schools? How can this proposal move forward when there is evidence that the 82 employees who responded to the survey were from Druid Hills High School and Middle School, and Fernbank Elementary, which has the smallest proportion of poor students?
  • In what way will the curriculum be different from the curriculum already offered in DeKalb County?
  • Who is Matt Lewis, and what are his credentials, other than being a parent in this cluster, to lead the charge to create this cluster of schools?
  • What evidence is there that the majority of teachers support this effort?
  • How will the Druid Hills Cluster prevent the potential of dividing the community by race, nationality, neighborhood, or disability?
  • Were parents proportionally represented in the discussions, votes, and internal discourse among the group led by Matt Lewis?
Figure 1. Druid Hills Charter Cluster Dome is comprised of 7 schools, 5 elementary, 1 middle and 1 high school.  It is the first attempt to create a “cluster” of schools under one dome in Georgia.  Image Source: CBS News

Clusters and Domes

On August 19, I wrote one of several posts about the Druid Hills Cluster.  I’ve read and commented on the Druid Hills Charter Cluster proposal, which you can read here.  When I wrote that piece, I received a number of comments from readers who were not particularly thrilled that I objected to DHCC proposal. They thought my comments were insensitive to the local organizing group, and talking about what were really “national” problems at the local level I was jeopardizing the education of the children and youth in the DHCC.

Two comments were from a reader identified as Anonymous, who disputed GSU Professor Carey’s observation of the vote on the proposal held in August at Druid Hills High School. Dr Carey, who is an expert on voting and the politics surrounding voting, especially in Third World Countries, suggested in an article in the AJC that the voting process might be in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

DeKalb County, a school district of 138 schools and 100,000 students, has been under siege from many quarters over the past decade. One of its former superintendents was indicted on four counts of racketeering, including bribery and charges of falsifying a public document. In February, 2013, Governor of Georgia removed six members of the DeKalb County School Board as a result of a report from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools identifying many problems including a non cooperative board, questionable staff hirings, and fiscal irresponsibility. Six of the nine school board members were removed. The school district has also had one superintendent after another, culminating with the assignment of Michael L. Thermond, (a former legislator) as interim superintendent. The removed board members were replaced six board members appointed by the Governor until the next election.

There is a move to break apart the DeKalb School district primarily motivated by “concerned” parents.  The Druid Hill Charter Cluster is the first effort of its kind to lasso several schools into a cluster that would operate like a single charter school.  Of course this would mean that all the funds to run this privately managed charter on public property would be paid for by citizens of DeKalb County and the Georgia.

Another effort afoot in the county is the establishment of Dunwoody as a separate and free-standing school district, domed off from the rest of the county.  Dunwoody, with a population of more than 46,000 people, officially became a city in 2008, and there is now a strong movement to set up its own school system.    The racial make up of Dunwoody is 69.8% White, 12.8% African-American, 0.3% Native American, 11.1% Asian, and 10.3% Latino and Hispanic.  However, the present racial make up of Dunwoody High School is 42% White, 31% African-American, 7% Asian, 1% Native American, and 17% Latino and Hispanic.

Dunwoody, which is located northwest of Druid Hills, is using the argument that having its own district would mean better education for its students.  Other groups are emerging, so that there is a strong movement to either charterize parts of the district, or essentially for some parts to secede.

What we are observing in DHCC is an un-democratic activity that purports to represent the opinions and needs of thousands of parents and children.  If there is not a broad cross-section of constituents involved in the DHCC, then what we are witnessing is simply another attempt by school choice advocates to privatize public education.

DeKalb School Board Critique of DHCC

After reading the charter petition results of the 1st review and executive summary of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster petition by the DeKalb School Board, it seems that the Board is leaning toward rejecting the petition on multiple grounds.   After studying the petition and reading the Board analyses, there is nothing new in the cluster that isn’t happening in DeKalb County Schools.  DeKalb already has a viable Science, Technology, Engineering & Math curriculum, an International Baccalaureate Program, and Montessori program.  As pointe out in the review, the DHCC seems to be duplicating programs now offered in DeKalb Schools.  And here is one more thing.  The DHCC, starting in grade 9, says it will “reassign” students who need more support to neighboring schools (outside the cluster) further reinforcing one of the criticisms of charter schools–denying the very students they intended to help.

We come back to the question that we posed at the beginning: In DeKalb County, Georgia, in whose interests are these changes served?  Students?  Parents? Teachers? Administrators? Charter Management Companies? Parents who want to control who goes to their schools?

What do you think about the Druid Hills Charter Cluster idea?  Who do you think the cluster will serve?

 

Georgia’s Race to the Top Questionable Relationships with Charters, Teach for America & The New Teacher Project

Georgia’s Race to the Top has clear, yet questionable relationships with Charter Management Companies, Teach for America and The New Teacher Project. Charter management companies are private nationally based firms that receive public funds intended for public schools. The Race to the Top insures that management firms are welcomed into the 11 states and D.C., at the detriment to local school districts.

Build Charters and They Will Come

Add to this fact that the Georgia State Legislature passed a law to amend the Georgia Constitution allowing the defunct (because the Georgia Supreme Court ruled its existence unconstitutional) State Charter Schools Commission to rise from the dead. This summer the revived Commission received 16 applications from various groups seeking to embed charter schools in districts around the state. And, they can set up shop without the district’s approval or need, as long as they are approved by the State Commission.

Why is this relationship such a big deal? One of the goals of the RTT Georgia plan is to turnaround the lowest-achieving schools. In this scenario, the state fires the principal, and no more than half the faculty, and replace them. One of models is the “restart model” whereby a school is converted, or closed and then opened by a charter school operator, a charter management organization, or an education management organization.

Screen-Shot-2012-03-14-at-7.17.54-PM-1So, the Race to the Top has laid the ground work to unleash charter schools with false claims and lots of money.  The problem here is that charters have not been more effective than regular public schools, and indeed it would be better for a parent to send their child to a public school than a charter.  For example, data from Dr. Michael Marder’s research, University of Texas shows that not only is poverty correlated with low test scores, but charter schools on the whole are at the bottom of the graph showing how ineffective they have been in improving academic achievement.

Charter schools also have increased the segregation of children.  Instead of seeking other possible solutions, such as teacher enhancement and staff development, health care for families, social services that offer opportunities and help in alleviating poverty and unemployment, investment in the infrastructure of the communities of these schools, all the state can come up with is firing 50 percent the staff, and then hiring inexperienced and non certified part-time teachers.

Hire Inexperienced, Non Certified and Part Time Teachers

One of the four focus area of the Georgia RTT is great teachers and leaders.  In the mind of the Georgia RTT officials, one way to get great teachers and leaders is to partner up with two organizations that “train” teachers during a boot camp style summer program lasting at most six weeks.  I’m talking about Teach for America, and The New Teacher Project.

In the budget of the Georgia RTT there are two lines that show the amounts paid to these two organization.  Teach for America received $4,837,104 through June 30, 2012.  The New Teacher Project received $3,002,890 through the same period.  Why would the state pay out $7,839,994 to hire inexperienced and non certified teachers, and place them in schools that have been identified as “low achieving.”  Through this period, the total expenditures of the Georgia Race to the Top is $69,765,001.  More than 11 percent of the budget was allocated to these organizations who prepare non certified teachers.

Thousands of Georgia teachers lost their jobs over the past three years, yet the state is willing to hire nearly 500 inexperienced and non certified recruits from Teach for America and The New Teacher Project, at a cost of about $14,000 each.

How is this plan going to improve the quality of the teaching profession in Georgia when the state seems bent on replacing experienced and well-educated teachers with people who’ve already indicated they are only going to stay for two years and move on to something more lucrative?

The relationship between the government and these private organizations is enough to get your attention.  Why spend so much money on non certified teachers when the goal is somehow improve teaching, and get what the state calls Great Teachers.

Why not use this money to develop sustainable and research based teacher education programs?   The RTT funded three projects based on the U-Teach Program at the University of Texas.  However, the three universities in Georgia received a total of only $789,6748, a miniscule amount compared to what TFA and TNTP received.  And, oddly, RTT people didn’t have to go to the University of Texas to find such a model.  It exists at Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, and the University of Georgia.

What do you think about the nature of the relationships that are evident by examining the Georgia RTT Budget and Plan?