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Innovate or inhibit: Are there flaws in DeKalb’s new charter policy?

DeKalb is a complicated school system, and its leadership is often viewed with suspicion, some of it deserved considering the spate of criminal convictions.

So, it's not surprising the new superintendent’s actions around the district’s updated charter school policy are being scrutinized.

A week ago, the school board approved the district’s charter school policy in a 4-3 vote. Now, a blog by former school board member and now county Commissioner Nancy Jester raises questions about that vote. Jester's former school board seat was won by her husband Stan Jester.

Nancy Jester says Superintendent Steve Green failed to provide the board with an eight-page review of the charter policy by the state. There was some debate at the school board meeting about delaying the vote to study the DOE concerns, but members voted after repeated assurances from the school system attorney the policy complied with state regulations.

The Sept. 11 DOE letter to Green from Louis J. Erste, associate state superintendent for policy, charter schools, district flexibility, and governmental affairs, makes clear the agency believes DeKalb's new charter school policy requires revisions.

I asked Green today for a statement on the vote and DOE letter, which he provided:

The vote by the DeKalb County Board of Education on Sept. 14 to revise and update the District policy known as Policy IBB on Charter Schools was based on several important considerations:

•The current policy was last updated in 2011 and woefully out-of-date.

•The proposed changes had been on the BOE agenda for three months prior to the Board vote.

•The proposed changes had not been altered since June 2015.

District legal counsel assured the Board that the proposed updates were in compliance with all appropriate state law and regulations.

•Numerous and, on occasion, lengthy meetings were held with individual Board members and District legal counsel and District Charter Office staff to answer questions and consider changes.

An eight-page list of suggested changes by staff of  the Georgia Department of Education was received on the evening of Friday, Sept. 11. These changes may be considered by the Board at any future meeting. The DeKalb County School District is a leader in charter schools with 14 conversion and start-up charter schools. Indeed, the District has 48 schools that offer choice options in charters, IB, theme, magnet and Montessori.

I have requested a meeting with charter staff of the GaDOE and our attorneys and charter staff to discuss suggested changes to the District policy on charter schools. The meeting is tentatively scheduled for early October. We take seriously our public obligation to offer the best possible education experience for all of our 102,000 students.

Erste confirmed DOE will meet with DeKalb about the charter policy. "We are working with a new collaborative partnership with the new superintendent in DeKalb," he said. "We offered our review of his rules based on the new state board rules and will be meeting with him this week and next week to follow up."

Here is an excerpt of the DOE letter:

Dear Dr. Green:

Thank you for submitting the DeKalb County School System (DCSS) proposed charter school policy and regulation for our review. We sincerely appreciate the spirit of partnership you have demonstrated as we move forward together in ensuring that only high quality charter schools with strong academic results and well-trained and high-functioning governing boards that can and do ensure financial sustainability and legal and regulatory compliance are created and renewed in DeKalb County.

We have reviewed these documents for compliance with Georgia’s charter school laws, State Board of Education rules, and Georgia Department of Education guidance… We have identified several things in DCSS’s proposed policy and regulation that require revision. One of the major changes needed is to clearly state what DCSS charter schools are authorized to do, specifically as it relates to charter school governing boards making decisions related to personnel, finance, curriculum and instruction, resource allocation, and school operations. Charter schools cannot be truly held accountable by a local board of education unless the local board is, in fact, providing the flexibility, autonomy, and support outlined in Georgia law and SBOE rules/guidelines.

The list below includes 36 revisions to the proposed DCSS charter school policy and regulation. These changes are designed to provide charter schools with the maximum flexibility to which they are entitled by law.

Among the revisions sought by DOE:

Please remove “unique” and “innovative” from the initial paragraph of the proposed DCSS Policy in which it is stated that DCSS seeks to authorize high quality charter schools with “innovative, unique…academic programs” No state law, SBOE rules, or GaDOE guidelines require charter schools to implement unique or innovative programming that is not conducted elsewhere in a school district. Therefore, requiring “innovative, unique” academic programs in a new charter school or one seeking renewal places a greater burden on charter schools than is legally required. The goal in creating charter schools is to produce higher student performance in exchange for autonomy from the state and local district regardless of the academic model selected or the degree to which that model is unique or innovative.

The state quibbles with the DeKalb charter school policy  from the first paragraph:

The DeKalb County Board of Education (“Board”), by the authority granted to it pursuant to O.C.G.A. 20-2-2060, et seq., seeks to authorize high quality charter schools with innovative, unique, and effective academic programs that align to the strategic priorities of the District in order to increase student performance and achievement. The DeKalb County School District will enforce clear expectations for its charter schools and hold them accountable to the terms of their charter contracts. All locally approved start-up charter schools, conversion charter schools, and/or high school charter clusters, are subject to the control and management of the Board.

DOE criticizes DeKalb for the use of  "enforce" in that opening paragraph:

Please change the word “enforce” to “state” in the initial paragraph of the proposed DCSS Policy. It is not possible to enforce an expectation (a belief that someone will or should achieve something). The use of “enforce” (to compel observance of or compliance with a law, rule, or obligation) promotes the image of DCSS as a top-down, compliance-oriented organization with a Compliance Culture (where success is measured by simply achieving requirements) rather than as an Achievement Culture (where success is measured by achieving high expectations for all students). Eliminating this word may seem inconsequential, but doing so would highlight the importance of your initial and subsequent work to design and implement a transformation of DCSS’s leadership from a Compliance Culture to an Achievement Culture and dovetail nicely with the charter system application requirement that such a transition occur. As we have discussed, the key is that the district is truly transformed from being a “school command and control center” to being a “school support service center” where, instead of compelling school-level compliance, the district focuses on providing quality support and resources for the DCSS system of schools.

In her blog, Nancy Jester condemns the new policy as inhospitable to charters:

DeKalb has hard-wired into their policy the onerous requirement that a charter school must provide a “unique” or “innovative” academic program. I predict that DeKalb will use this requirement to deny any and every charter not connected to the “friends and family” that run the district...The school district also denied the Druid Hills Charter Cluster last year. Soon, the district will take up renewing charters for conversation charters, like Chamblee Charter High School. If the district isn’t a good charter partner with the state DOE, can we expect Chamblee’s charter review and recommendation to get a fair shake? And, what do these developments portend for DeKalb’s application to the Georgia DOE to be a “charter school district”? At this point, DeKalb asking to be a charter school district, seems a bit like, an abusive parent submitting their name for a “Parent of the Year” award.

Several folks have cited an email exchange between Green and Erste as further evidence of strained relations between the school district and the state. While some consider the emails fraught with tension, I agree with Erste's own characterization of the comments as "normal back and forth."

Judge for yourself:

Green responds to the state critique by writing:

Lou, I will give your suggestions and advice due consideration and will proceed in a manner that is in the best interest of students and families the DCSD. Thank you. Regards, Steve

To which, Erste responded:

Thank you, Steve. We are ready to help. Your response will be a good indicator of DCSS's commitment to being a good charter partner. The State Superintendent and SBOE are as hopeful as we are that our renewed partnership will continue in a healthy fashion. Lou

To which, Green responded:

Lou, I assume that the principle you have outlined below applies to all involved parties. Thus, your response will also be a “good indicator” of your willingness to be a “good charter partner” as well. Steve

To which, Erste responded:

Thus our commitment in my email and in my letter to assist you and your team in succeeding as a strong local charter authorizer and, concomitantly, as a good charter partner. Onward and upward! Lou

I'm unclear why so much intrigue is being layered onto this board vote or the charter policy. Nor do I see an anti-charter theme in DeKalb's policy requirement that charters be innovative. The definition of the word -- introducing new ideas --  doesn't set an impossible standard.

In fact, when the term "charter schools" was first uttered in Georgia, innovation was the key selling point.

It was way back in 1993 and the person introducing the concept of charter schools to Georgians at a press conference was Gov. Zell Miller, who proclaimed, "What I'm doing with this program is allowing schools the latitude to build innovative programs for learning -- models for the future. This program allows our educators, the people on the front lines, to become the innovators."

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.