Long-Time Education Advocates Launch New Organization, Public Education Matters Georgia
(APN) ATLANTA — With controversial changes to public education coming down Georgia’s legislative pipeline, parents and teachers are ramping up their organizing efforts, among them three Atlanta women who recently launched a new group called Public Education Matters Georgia (PEMG).
Former Atlanta Public Schools Board of Education Member Cecily Harsch-Kinnane (District 3), Janet Kishbaugh, and Carolyn Wood have been public education advocates since their kids entered kindergarten in the late 1990s. All three served on Parent Teacher Associations and the board of the Council of Intown Neighborhood Schools.
But their passion extended beyond their own children’s schooling.
“We care about education as part of the social democratic contract,” Wood told Atlanta Progressive News in an interview with the group.
That view lead the three women to seek broader influence in education policy.
Harsch-Kinnane, a former teacher, was elected to the Atlanta Board of Education in 2006 and served until 2014, when she chose not to run for reelection.
Kishbaugh and Wood, both attorneys, spent their free time following education issues at the State Capitol, and were recruited to lobby for the Southern Education Foundation between 2013 and 2015.
They said the passage of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District (OSD) legislation earlier this year is what spurred them to combine their efforts by forming a nonprofit.
“[The OSD] allows us to focus on the concept of public education on a statewide basis because it brings everyone back to thinking about the public schools,” Wood said.
They incorporated PEMG as a nonprofit in September 2015, and launched a website in October.
The website itself is one third of their action plan, which includes education, advocacy, and outreach.
The website is home to fact sheets and legislative updates to educate stakeholders about the OSD and other education issues.
“The idea is that there’s one place that you can go that’s a trusted clearinghouse of information about how policies and legislation are not only already affecting us, but also the ones that are coming,” Harsch-Kinnane said.
The advocacy arm of the organization is devoted to influencing policy through lobbying and civic engagement.
The outreach portion is all about providing resources to communities who want to organize.
“We’re putting together training materials,” Kishbaugh said.
The women make presentations to churches, neighborhood associations, parent and teacher groups, and to small groups in private homes. The goal is that the people who participate will themselves be able to use the same materials to reach their own networks.
“What will drive the fight against OSD is having community leaders talking to their communities… It will be getting them to feel as comfortable and conversive with the information as we are,” Kishbaugh explained.
They plan to take their presentations to counties with schools that would be affected by the OSD.
As Atlanta Progressive News previously reported, the OSD is a proposed statewide school district that would take over so-called “failing” schools, if voters approve a constitutional amendment in the November 2016 elections.
The OSD would be headed by a governor-appointed superintendent, who would have the power to operate schools, turn them over to charter operators, or close them.
“When you look at the [OSD] legislation, there’s nothing in there that tells you how the state is going to make a qualitative difference in the education of kids. It’s not about that… This is a move to centralize the power in the governor’s office… It’s about controlling the school, controlling the money, controlling the delivery of education, and nothing about the actual curriculum,” Wood said.
Many of the schools that are eligible for takeover have predominantly black and low-income student populations.
“It’s disenfranchising communities of color and the most impoverished communities from being able to vote for a local school board that controls their schools,” Kishbaugh said.
The OSD isn’t the only issue PEMG is tackling.
This year Gov. Deal also created an Education Reform Commission to rewrite the state’s funding formula.
The Commission recently voted on recommendations to make permanent a 421 million dollar shortfall created by budget cuts that Deal and his predecessor inflicted on the education system over the last twelve years.
The funding plan also allocates more money to charter schools and eliminates rules on classroom size, contact time with teachers, and teacher pay.
Under the latter part of the plan, teachers would lose their right to a set pay scale. Instead, raises would be contingent on student test scores.
These recommendations will be taken up by the General Assembly in 2016, and PEMG plans to challenge them.
PEMG is also working on offense: Wood, Harsch-Kinnane and Kishbaugh are collaborating with a number of other groups to craft their own education reform legislation.
“We’re going to communities and saying, ‘What do you need?’ Not, ‘Here’s what you need,’” Harsch-Kinnane said.
“We don’t think we have all the answers and we don’t think we know more than anybody,” she said.
They are also considering pushing legislation to allow parents to opt their students out of high-stakes testing, an issue that takes them back to George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which originally launched the trio into advocacy.
“I think we all really sat up with NCLB. We had a lot of conversations about this movement, the measurement movement,” Harsch-Kinnane said.
In 2002, NCLB set testing goals and sanctioned schools that didn’t meet them. The law is criticized for ushering in an era of data-driven teaching that reduces students to numbers, and consumes class time with test prep instead of creative practices and critical thinking.
“It’s a privatization model of testing your widgets. You go on an assembly line, you do a quality control test. But our kids aren’t widgets,” Wood says.
In the years since NCLB passed, the for-profit education sector has ballooned from 13 billion dollars per year to 389 billion, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That’s also due to President Obama’s 2009 Race to The Top (RTT) law, a policy that rewards states for supporting charter schools, which have more freedom in how they spend money, and sometimes are themselves for-profit ventures.
“There are certain things that shouldn’t be privatized, and people are making money on those things to the detriment of the ultimate stakeholders,” Kishbaugh said.