Amidst all the controversy around the upcoming charter schools amendment vote, I took some time this past Shabbat to quiet myself, take a long walk and consider why I feel so strongly about supporting Amendment 1.
Specifically, I wanted to figure out why it feels like such a “Jewish” issue to me. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
First, there’s our history. American public education has always been the ladder to success for immigrants, refugees and the poor. Perhaps no single group has benefited from good public schools more than American Jews; in just two generations, great public schools catapulted our parents and grandparents, who arrived with no money and no English, into the mainstream of American life and success far beyond our miniscule 1.7 percent of the U.S. population.
Second, there’s the very Jewish value of tzedek, or justice. Every Jewish “immigrant” who moves to Georgia from the Midwest or the Northeast who moves down to Georgia grapples with the dismal quality of public education in the state; we are horrified by graduation rates of 67 percent, by cheating scandals and public schools where children pass through metal detectors.
Those of us with the resources to buy homes in top school districts or send our kids to private schools have good options, but all across the state – in Macon, Columbus, Augusta, Valdosta, Albany and the tiny towns strung along the old “Plantation Belt” – there are families trapped in zip codes that doom their children to struggling, underperforming schools.
Third, there’s what I’ve learned about Jewish obstinence and the holy tradition of speaking truth to power. In the Bible, we are called a stiff-necked people, and while G-d did not always mean this in a good way, I prize the loud-mouths, champions and fighters who stand up for what is right for children.
In the matter of public charter schools, I want to be one of the ones who stands up to the “educational industrial complex, the bureaucrats and bullies of the status quo who are afraid of innovation and change.
Illuminating the Argument
To be clear: When I mention the “educational industrial complex,” I’m talking about entrenched politicians who defend mediocrity in public education. I’m talking about superintendents, local school boards, the State Superintendents Association, the Georgia Association of Educators and even the Georgia Parent-Teacher Association.
They all say they “love” charter schools but oppose the amendment because they say it will create another bureaucracy. In reality, their refusal to give charter schools serious consideration is all about money and control.
Gwinnett County rejected top-performing Ivy Preparatory Academy, an all-girls charter school where 98 percent of students met or exceeded the reading portion of the CRCT last year (and 100 percent of eighth graders passed the Georgia State Writing Assessment).
In another example, local boards denied Pataula Charter Academy, founded to serve students from five economically disadvantaged rural counties. The denial came after Pataula, in its second year, saw 91.9 percent of their students meet or exceed standards on reading – out-achieving all district averages for the area – and 91.3 percent meet or exceed Math CRCT standards – better than that figure posted by Baker, Clay, Calhoun, Early and Randolph county districts.
Finally, consider that Fulton County denied Fulton Leadership Academy, with its rigorous academic and character-building curriculum serving economically disadvantaged boys in grades six through 12. The school has an aviation and technology focus, though the district called “unoriginal” and seemingly ignored the outstanding results of 97.2 percent and 92.9 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards in reading and math, respectively.
Are you sensing the David-versus-Goliath nature of this struggle? Let me sling some more pellets of truth at what Goliath would have you believe:
- The amendment will not take money away from traditional public schools. State-approved charters will operate on an average of 62 percent of the funding spent on kids at traditional district schools. No local dollars will be used to support state-chartered schools.
- The amendment will not create a parallel charter school bureaucracy. The alternate charter school authorizer the amendment proposes, and which existed for two years, was staffed by just five employees. It ran at no cost to taxpayers. Charter schools themselves paid for the Charter Schools Commission in the amount of 3 percent of their operations budget.
- It will not serve as a “back door” to charter approval. The former commission considered 57 petitions and only authorized 16 schools.
- It will not take away local control of public schools. What could be more “local” than parental control? Every charter school is run by a board of directors which includes parents.
Just One Personal Tale
Those are just some of the arguments we are fighting over, but remember that our tradition also asks us to listen to the “still small voices.” I’m glad to say I heard one last week, when Elizabeth Shelby, a 10th-grader at Atlanta charter high school KIPP Collegiate Academy, spoke confidently about why the amendment matters.
Elizabeth told of KIPP teachers who give out their cell phone numbers so students can call at any hour with questions about homework. She described weekly meetings with faculty to review goals and strategies, and she spoke about the contrast between KIPP, where she feels safe and secure, to her regular public school where there was violence and dysfunction.
The young lady even said that KIPP Collegiate was a better place than the private school she attended for one year.
“This school isn’t just preparing me to get to college,” she said. “It’s preparing me to be successful in college.”
History; justice; speaking truth to power. These are the very Jewish reasons I’ll be voting “yes” for charter schools – and for Elizabeth and thousands of kids like her – on Nov. 6.
BY NINA RUBIN / FOR THE ATLANTA JEWISH TIMES
Editor’s note: Nina Rubin is Director of Communications for the Georgia Charter Schools Association, a founding board member of Limmud Atlanta/Southeast and a member of Congregation Shearith Israel.