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Public schools offer parents choices, but there are limits and waiting lists

In an effort to give parents greater choice in their child’s education, public school districts in Georgia have come up with a variety of options from magnets to charters to transfers.

But the zeal for choice has outstripped the options in some districts. AJC education writer Rose French reports DeKalb has seen a steady increase in transfer applicants. For school year 2013-14, the system received approximately 14,750 applications, with 5,500 approved. For the latest school year, 2015-16, French found there were 16,000 applications, with nearly 6,400 approved.

Ditto for Cobb where French learned the district received 999 applications for the 2012-2013 school year and accommodated 672. For the 2015-2016 school year, the district received 2,794 applications and can accommodate 1,768.

Here is an excerpt from French’s story on the challenges parents face when they want to make a choice outside their zoned school:

By Rose French

In many districts, more students are applying to transfer to high-performing schools than the number of available spaces. "I don't think it's (school choice) a reality at all," said one frustrated Cobb County parent who said her transfer requests for her son and daughter were denied with little explanation.

As demand for choice increases, parents complain they are not told enough about how the schools make the decisions. School leaders in Cobb are reviewing their policies, and DeKalb officials have said changes are coming, after complaints from parents calling for greater transparency.

State legislation in recent years has pushed for more charter schools and alternatives to the traditional public school model, but state educators and others say they have not seen enough high-qualified groups applying for charter schools to fill the demand.

Cobb parents can apply to move their children out of poor-performing schools, but if they don't get in via the district's lottery system, they're put on a waiting list. However, parents say they're not told where they rank on the list and are rejected without knowing how school officials came to their decision.

In DeKalb, parents are angered by the selection process for the county's magnet schools and say they want to see the program expand or go away altogether. This year, a new computer-generated lottery system to select students for the magnet program omitted some students by mistakenly classifying them as living outside the district. For other students, the system dropped grades from their profile.

Telling parents where they rank on waiting lists and giving as much information as possible about the school-choice process is "fundamental," said Claire Smrekar, associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, who has written extensively about school choice. "It gives most parents some degree of assurance that this system is fair, consistent.”

Cobb school board member David Morgan says schools should have uniform criteria or a formula for deciding if they have space for children trying to transfer, and Cobb schools don't.

Parents sometimes face desperate decisions trying to get their children out of failing schools. Karen Armstrong says she had little choice but to sign over temporary guardianship of her son to her sister, to keep him attending a high-performing school in East Cobb. Armstrong moved from East Cobb to Powder Springs in South Cobb when she married nearly five years ago, and she said her middle school-age son was being bullied and not getting the attention he needed from teachers at the lower-performing South Cobb school. So her son went to live with her sister for a year so he could finish out middle school in East Cobb.

Armstrong said she has also tried to get her 6-year-old daughter into higher-performing schools outside her attendance zone and been denied. Armstrong and other parents argue that if a certain number of students want to get into a school, education officials should accommodate them with space and enough teachers so class sizes do not get too big.

Morgan points out that Cobb doesn't consider trailers on school property as available "space" but says they should. "As a parent, if I make a choice that a particular school is in my child's best interest, and there's a phenomenal teacher that happens to be teaching in a trailer, put my child there."

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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.