By Amanda Litvinov
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Melissa Ladd, a fifth-grade teacher at Poplar Road Elementary in Coweta County, Georgia, is an accomplished educator with more than a decade of experience. She also recently completed her doctorate in the field of school improvement.
Both her studies and her real-world experience point to the same conclusion: that the single greatest barrier to learning affecting her students is poverty.
And that’s why Ladd is angered that lawmakers in her state are attempting to install a state-run school district that would set back local efforts to address community needs. The so-called “Opportunity School District” would allow the state to turn over neighborhood schools to for-profit charter school operators—a measure that has never been shown to improve education outcomes in struggling schools.
Ladd says state leaders have been working “in a fact-free zone.”
“I once had this optimistic view of how lawmakers operate, and imagined dialogue based on deep analysis of the best research available,” said Ladd. But she was bitterly disappointed once she began attending education hearings and saw the process for her herself.
Too often, she says, legislators with an agenda “would just repeat these false statistics, and no one challenged them or even required a source to find out where they were getting these numbers. That means they can make exaggerated claims about our public schools and make it sound as though state takeovers are a solution that would actually help our students—which they are not.”
The so-called “Opportunity School District” Constitutional Amendment that will appear on the Georgia ballot on November 8th would enable the state to control up to 100 schools at a time—and three schools in Ladd’s district are on the “focus list.” The state could then allow for-profit charter companies to run the schools using taxpayer resources. Teachers could be fired for no reason, and parents would have no input in school affairs.
Such privatization schemes have not improved schools in other states, like Tennessee and Louisiana.
Reversing decades of progress
Ladd fears the state takeovers would also strip away the diversity of the student body in schools like Poplar Road Elementary.
Coweta County—where Ladd grew up and where she now teaches—is a rural community. To increase diversity in the district, students from Newnan, a small city in the metro Atlanta region, are bused to Poplar Elementary.
“We have a diverse student body. But it’s less so since the charter schools came to town. It was re-segregation along socioeconomic lines.”
Coweta Charter Academy and Odyssey Charter School, which opened in Coweta County in 2010 and 2004 respectively, both serve K-8 students.
One very basic reason that the charter schools were not an option for many low-income families is because transportation is not provided.
Parents are also required to volunteer 40 hours per year, which may be impossible for lower income workers, who are less likely to have paid leave and often work multiple jobs.
“They are drawing away mostly white families, because these [charters] simply aren’t an option for so many of the minority families that we serve,” Ladd explained.
Coweta Charter Academy’s student body is 78% white with only 9% of students coming from low-income families. That makeup does not reflect state averages, which include roughly equal numbers of white and African-American students; and around 15 percent Hispanic students; and 59% low-income students.
Here’s what would really help…
Not that Melissa Ladd wants her minority or low-income students to end up in charters anyway, since they are not held to the same standards as the public school system.
Neither charter school currently operating in Coweta County has ever outperformed the public schools, even though they are drawing students more likely to have had stable home lives and more advantages. In fact, Odyssey Charter School is on the state’s list of failing schools, but it hasn’t been closed, which violates the terms of its own charter.
A coalition that included Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform and the Georgia Association of Educators released a report in December 2015 offering an alternative model for helping the state’s struggling schools. Recommendations include investing in quality early education, lower class sizes, after school programs, and on-site health services.
Ladd fears that a state takeover district–which will result in a $13 million cut to public schools–will reverse the progress her district has made in addressing the effects of poverty that prevent students from focusing on school.
“We have an amazing system of wraparound services here,” Ladd says. “We can get students counseling here or work with families in the home. We can help them get food.”
Students don’t have those supports at charter schools, and the local community would have no input on whether they were needed.
Ladd recalls one young student who was regularly falling asleep during class last year. At a routine dental check conducted at school, it was discovered that he had 12 rotten teeth. The pain was preventing him from getting a good night’s sleep.
School staff helped his mother re-instate the child’s Medicaid benefits and locate an oral surgeon.
If Poplar Road’s wraparound services were stripped away, these kinds of problems would go unsolved.
“What would happen to that student?” Ladd asked. “What would happen to students just like him, who really can engage in school once a basic need is addressed? That’s where Georgia should put its focus: on wraparound services, on solving community issues using strategies supported by research.”