At Thursday's Gwinnett Board of Education afternoon work session I listened to a presentation about the 2013 legislative priorities. One of the eight draft priorities listed is to ask the General Assembly to "support flexibility for our schools." Sounds good, right? What could be wrong with increased flexibility?
By now you know I insist we scrutinize the budget more closely to make sure every dollar is spent wisely and focused on instruction. It may seem like I am harping, but the truth is that Gwinnett County Public Schools is the only district in the state with what should be raised expectations thanks to the IE2 contract, but instead we have low graduation rates, especially among minority students. We all need to be more vigilant and here’s why.
Several years ago the Gwinnett school board, faced with shrinking budgets and increasing challenges, took a long look down the road and suggested that in order to cope, they would need to get out from under the mountains of bureaucracy they faced. This was visionary thinking, and I applaud them for that. They approached the state and asked to be granted greater flexibility in return for meeting a baseline “Exceeds Expectations” goal. (In other words, the goals are set only for students who rank "Exceeds Expectations" on state exams.) The resulting IE2 contract with the state is good for five years, with annual results published a year in arrears. Here’s the problem, they based those goals on racial subgroups and set the bar much lower for some groups than others. So, where No Child Left Behind demands that all students meet certain goals, regardless of race, our own Gwinnett County school district is able to expect less of minority students.
In fact, Gwinnett County Public Schools is able to maneuver around 14 state regulations including limits on class size. Some of these changes probably do allow the system to function in a more streamlined and efficient way. This brings me to my next issue – transparency. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how the county has been using this exceptional flexibility. It is not even clear how different expectations by racial subgroup are supposed to improve education. After all, everyone who graduates from a high school in Gwinnett County will have to compete in the same city, state, country, world. Shouldn’t they be held to the same standard? Somehow, lower expectations are supposed to close the achievement gap. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be because it’s causing an uproar in Florida right now.
So, the way it’s supposed to work is that each school creates a plan for improvement or LSPI to meet its particular challenges. The board allocates resources, and often community commitment is built into the solution. This is the first line of defense for struggling children. If a school fails to meet its IE2 goals for one year, the improvement plan should get it back on track in the next.
Sometimes this works great. But what happens when it doesn’t work? Per the terms of the IE2 contract, the county isn’t defaulting on the terms until a school has failed to meet the baseline three years in a row. If your child is in middle school, that could be the duration of his or her stay there.
We have schools in Gwinnett County that have failed to meet expectations for multiple years in a row. The state must intervene and monitor these schools despite the IE2 contract. Some of these schools are in District III. While the state monitors the progress of these schools, one would hope that they get resources targeted at correcting their issues, but that isn’t clear either.
My point is, with increased flexibility should come increased accountability. What we have in Gwinnett is a system with increased flexibility and decreased accountability. The school board is able to answer every shortfall by increasing class size and furloughing teachers to pay for hired lobbyists at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce. When we have schools monitored by the state because of consistent failures of the system to improve achievement, there is no excuse for the per pupil central office budget to be 30 percent higher than the state average. The achievement gap may not be closed just by throwing money at it, but it most certainly will not be closed by throwing money away from it.
If you vote for me and I am on the school board in January, I can assure you that there will be a new gold standard for community transparency that goes along with a request for flexibility.