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The bureaucrats' revenge 

Why are school officials so afraid of providing equal funding to charter school students?

Tech High School is most definitely not the blackboard jungle -- although conventional wisdom would signal that it should be another of Georgia's many educational pits, a warehouse where kids are stored and learning is rare.

Tech's students are mostly minorities from poor and working-class families. All but 3 percent are black, and three-quarters of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. When the school opened four years ago, its first class, ninth-graders at the time, was woefully unprepared – only 10 percent met minimum math standards and only about one in four met reading requirements. A year later, new ninth-graders scored even lower. That pretty much defines "inner-city school," and low expectations would be a common reaction.

"No way," says Tech's principal, Elisa Falco. "Here we succeed."

That's not hyperbole. As Tech's first seniors – 44 out of a student body of 237 – prepare to graduate, the low-expectation mantra evaporates before superhigh achievement. Compared with schools of similar poverty demographics across Georgia, Tech is at the top in test scores. Even compared with all state high schools, Tech's end-of-course test scores range from solidly in the middle to pretty darn good. Falco proudly waves an analysis showing Tech's overall end-of-course scores are the highest in the Atlanta Public Schools system in almost every subject – and equal to or better than average scores throughout Georgia (except for geometry, where the state average was a slight 0.4 percent higher).

Lauren Hardwick is a student who might have disappeared in a large high school with thousands of students. She has sickle cell anemia, and was out of school a lot when she started at Tech three years ago. "Miss Falco would come to my home to give me Spanish lessons," Lauren recalls. "It was a lot easier to catch up at a small school." As she guided me around the school, Lauren beamed, "I'm a special person here because every student is a special person." She's off to LaGrange College next year, and plans to become a physician or medical researcher.

One of Lauren's inspirations is English teacher Shawna Dix, who fled a 1,900-student high school in Clayton County to become one of Tech High's 18 faculty members. "Our job is to make every student a success story," Dix says. "Our writing scores are phenomenal. Why? Ask Lauren." Lauren takes her cue: "We write every single day. That's how you learn to write, by doing it every single day."

Here's the kicker: APS gives Tech High only 71 percent of what it gives traditional schools, tallied on a per-student basis. APS will spend about $12,072 per student this year, compared with Tech's $8,587.

So what's Tech's secret to success at a bargain price for taxpayers? Tech High is a charter school, that hybrid of public and private education. Under the charter system, nonprofit groups get "charters" to run a school or even an entire school district. They're funded by the local school systems, but exempt from much of the grinding bureaucracy that is the raison d'etre of most education factotums.

The APS official overseeing charters, Allen Mueller, complains that per-student expenditure comparisons aren't fair. "That's not how we budget here," he says. Yet he did acknowledge that the formula for sending dollars to charter schools is based on the per-student calculation. Why doesn't APS like per-student cost comparisons with other school districts? That doesn't take algebra, trig or calculus to figure out – it's because APS spends so much more per student than other districts.

To its credit, APS has approved more charter schools than any other district – seven of the state's 71. An eighth APS charter will open next fall.

A law last year mandates parity in money for charter and traditional schools; APS has yet to kick in the extra money. Mueller says APS is awaiting guidance from state officials. Other school systems aren't so bureaucratically paralyzed – Chatham County, for example, fully funds its charter, Oglethorpe Middle School.

"There is definitely a disparity in funding," says Tony Roberts, CEO of the Georgia Charter School Association. "The districts don't pass on what they should."

What's a miracle is that so much good comes out of Tech's crappy environment. Originally housed at SciTrek, the school was forced to move when the science museum closed in 2004. Tech is now crammed into a dilapidated and abandoned former elementary school near Oakland Cemetery. Tech High pays rent to APS, unlike traditional schools.

"Public school officials are deathly afraid of competition, especially competition that works," says Kelly McCutchen, executive vice president of the libertarian-conservative-leaning Georgia Public Policy Foundation and one of Tech High's governing board members.

Local public school officials around Georgia have done everything possible to stall and thwart the spread of charter schools – including rejecting 25 of the 27 applications for charters last year.

That brings us to state Rep. Jan Jones, R-Alpharetta, and her House Bill 881. That legislation – which passed the House 120-48 – would allow a state board to approve charters, ending sabotage at the local level. And the bill would ensure full parity of funding – the dollars follow the kids.

Critics of HB 881 – such as the AJC – conflate the issue with the fact that state officials have slashed K-12 funding. That's true – Gov. Sonny Perdue eviscerated education to the tune of $1.5 billion in recent years. Yet that's not the issue. Similarly, the AJC further confuses the issue of charters by lumping them with vouchers.

The AJC also raises the straw tiger of local control. A state board could approve charters even if local school systems – whose concern often is power and money and not kids – say no.

But, as Jones says: "HB 881 pushes control to parents and communities, giving them a direct say in how their children are educated. ... What is it that school boards really fear? The scrutiny that comes from comparison."

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