When the business community is willing to become involved and invested in helping improve public schools, that's typically a wonderful thing benefiting all involved. It's a bad idea, however, for the business community to be running the school system.
That's effectively the situation we've had in Atlanta for a decade or so, as the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce gradually strengthened its hold over the superintendent's office and helped orchestrate a continual chipping-away of the authority of the elected school board. Few complained about this arrangement while the Atlanta Public Schools and its CEO-ish leader, Superintendent Beverly Hall, were winning national awards and collecting accolades for producing incredible — sometimes too incredible — gains in student achievement.
But now that the school testing scandal has called into question some of that achievement, the Chamber needs to back off and let the various investigations run their course. The only way public confidence can be restored in the Atlanta school system at this point is with transparency: a thorough — and external — examination of the problems and a series of visible reforms, possibly including dismissals and felony charges where serious wrong-doing has occurred. But that becomes difficult with business leaders quietly trying to manage the process from offstage.
Ever since forming its political arm EduPAC in 1993 to help recruit and elect school board members, the Chamber has taken an increasingly active role in the APS. In 1999, the group recruited Hall to Atlanta and successfully lobbied to gradually transfer more and more power from the nine-member school board to the superintendent's office. The Chamber hedged its bets by cultivating a majority of board members — a majority it lost in the last election — to act as a voting bloc that would stay reliably in its pocket.
To the Chamber, the high-flying APS was another asset to increase the city's luster and help lure companies to Atlanta. That's a worthy goal for a business group, but the ultimate objective of a school system should be to provide all children with a quality education, not to promote business. Unfortunately, when Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered the APS to investigate cheating allegations this past spring, the Chamber's instinct was to protect its own interests — namely, the Atlanta "brand" — by engineering a whitewash rather than to actually look into whether students were being shortchanged.
And recent board squabbling was a direct response to the Chamber's meddling. When the new board majority realized that decisions on dealing with the crisis were being coordinated between the Chamber and Chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks, the five members pushed for a change of leadership. Throughout that struggle — which resulted in a court-ordered board reshuffling — the Chamber fought, through lobbyists and intermediaries, to maintain its grip over the board.
Even as the state cheating probe was turning into a full-blown criminal investigation, John Rice, the vice-chairman of GE and the founder of the Atlanta Education Fund, the Chamber's school-fundraising arm, was trying to protect his investment, claiming in an AJC guest column that "Atlanta schools can't afford to lose Hall."
No, Atlanta schools can't afford to lose the public trust. And the integrity of the system will only be regained after the full truth is known.
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"GO BRAVES! AND KEEP RIGHT ON GOING!...right outta town...."
Finally - common ground!