Atlanta rejects high-quality charter school for students with special needs

Many Georgians realized during the pandemic just how badly our public education system had lost the plot. Three years later, it’s still missing.

The latest sign is the Atlanta school board’s rejection this past week of a high-quality charter school that serves students with special needs in middle and high school. Tapestry Public Charter School has operated in DeKalb County since 2013 with a model it calls full inclusion.

“Inclusive schools,” the school’s website states, “embrace diversity by rejecting the separation of students with disabilities from students without disabilities so that all students learn side-by-side in the same classroom.”

Tapestry’s results on Georgia’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI, are remarkable. 

In 2019, the last year of CCRPI results before the pandemic, Tapestry’s middle school students with disabilities scored higher than their peers in DeKalb County schools or Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in English and language arts, math, science and social studies, and in literacy. The same was true for Tapestry’s high school. 

In 2022, the first year of CCRPI results after the pandemic, things remained largely the same. Tapestry’s middle school students stayed ahead in English and language arts and in math, but fell behind in science and social studies. However, they remained well ahead when it came to literacy and all of the comparable areas in high school.

This should matter to a school system that touts its “focus on student outcomes,” as Atlanta Public Schools does. That district’s top four goals for 2021-26 are literacy proficiency, numeracy proficiency, post-graduation preparedness, and college and career readiness.Check, check, check and check for Tapestry, compared to APS’s results for students with disabilities.

Yet, APS staff recommended denying the charter application, and the board did so on a 9-0 vote.

Are you ready for the reasons? The district cited “the negative impacts the school may have on APS operations, and the school’s ability to maintain demographic parity in light of its issues with doing so at its DeKalb location.”

That should alarm anyone who actually focuses on student outcomes.

By “APS operations,” the district meant enrollment shifting from existing schools, and the potential to exacerbate staffing shortages.

Let’s set aside the possibility that moving special-needs students from existing schools might actually relieve staffing issues, by reducing the need for special education teachers in those schools. What we are really dealing with here, as usual, is adults making adult problems trump what’s best for students.

The current APS budget is $1.66 billion for an estimated 46,110 students – a staggering $36,000 per student. (That includes capital expenditures, but those dollars come out of taxpayers’ wallets so they count, too.) That’s a 15% increase in spending for just a 0.6% projected increase in enrollment.

If the adults in charge of such a gargantuan budget can’t figure out how to accommodate 300 students leaving their current schools to receive a vastly better education, they should find another line of work.

That leaves the “demographic” question, by which the adults mean “equity”: the focus on equal outcomes over equal opportunities.

One simply can’t reject a better school for some of society’s most vulnerable students, with a proven track record of significantly better outcomes, in the name of equity. Even APS’s narrower look at racial equity relied on demographic statistics that Tapestry has publicly refuted.

Lest you believe this is merely an Atlanta problem, APS was long the most charter-friendly district in Georgia and still has one-fifth of its students enrolled in locally approved charters. It hasn’t approved a new charter school in a decade, but despite this recent inaction it remains ahead of most if not all other districts in the state.

No, this is a statewide problem. The public education establishment in Georgia consistently places adult needs over student needs. As long as the rest of us let them get away with it, kids will continue to suffer.

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