School Choice Opponents Pursue New Legal Challenge

The Supreme Court has established that well-designed school choice programs are constitutional at the federal level. However, this has not stopped school choice opponents in Alabama from asking a federal court to block the state’s new law that gives tax breaks to families who transfer from a failing public school to a non-failing public or private school to help offset tuition and transportation costs.

The challenge is based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs argue that poor and rural students are unable to benefit from the law and are thus trapped in failing schools.

The claim that it will be difficult for poor and rural students to benefit from the program has merit. Many rural families live too far from a good public or private school, and the $3,500 tax credit may not be enough to help some poor families afford private school tuition.

However, this is not a valid reason to strike down the law. With so many challenges to ensuring that all students are attending a quality school, it is impossible for one solution to help all students. That should not mean that students who can benefit from this law should remain stuck in failing schools.

What it does mean is that policy makers need to find additional ways to help poor and rural students who may not be able to benefit from the current law. To help poor students, school choice programs should ensure that scholarship amounts are high enough to help the poorest students afford school options, such as including a sliding scale to provide the greatest help to those with the greatest need.

One way to help rural students is to provide high quality virtual learning. This would help students access classes they otherwise might not have access to, such as physics or foreign languages. Policy makers could also create charter schools that serve multiple counties. Pataula Charter Academy in southwest Georgia is a great example of this type of school.

Students and schools face different challenges that require a variety of solutions. While Alabama’s new school choice program might not help all students escape failing schools, it’s a good start.

Druid Hills High Cluster Votes for Autonomy from DeKalb Board

Last week the parents, teachers, and administrators of the Druid Hills High School cluster overwhelmingly voted to become a charter school cluster. The 92 percent vote for approval was well above the 60 percent threshold required by the untested state law.

Supporters expressed dissatisfaction with bloated administrative budgets, the DeKalb school board’s troubled history, and threats to accreditation.

If the petition is approved by the DeKalb school board and the state, the cluster of seven schools serving 5,000 diverse students would have its own governing board with authority over staffing, pay, and curriculum.

Neighborhoods around the state are watching to see how the process plays out. If the Druid Hills High cluster successfully implements the changes, expect to see other neighborhoods – especially those with troubled school boards – pursue this new tool to expand parental power and school autonomy.

Atlanta Continues to Expand Charter School Options

On Monday the Atlanta school board unanimously approved the Atlanta Classical Academy, a K-8 charter school scheduled to open for the 2014-15 school year. With about 10 percent of APS students attending locally approved charter schools, the district continues to be a leader in offering public school options.

The board approved the new charter school despite objections from Superintendent Erroll Davis, who argued that the board should reject all charter applications until the Georgia Supreme Court rules on whether charter schools should have to contribute toward payment of the district’s pension liability of more than $500 million.  Atlanta charter school teachers do not receive benefits from the district’s pension system, but the district is withholding $2.8 million from the district’s charter schools in an effort to force them to pay part of last year’s unfunded pension.

While Davis recommended denial, the district’s review committee found that the petition was worthy of approval based on the quality of the application. Davis’s opinion is another example of public schools placing the needs of adults over students.

Commendably, the board prioritized providing students with high quality options and approved the school.