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Private agency, public power

Should BCPS be concerned losing SACS CASI accreditation 6/30/11?

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1 Private agency, public power on Sun Apr 10, 2011 6:46 pm


Private agency, public power
By Heather Vogell

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The regional agencies that bestow accreditation on schools want their work associated with lofty concepts such as “quality,” “excellence” and “standards.”

But recently in the South, critics are hurling less complimentary terms that include “accountable to no one,” “bully” and “opportunism.”

A backlash is taking shape against the accreditation organization that downgraded Atlanta Public Schools’ status to probationary, one step from an accreditation loss.

Critics say accreditation officials are setting new rules that are fundamentally at odds with the local, democratic control of public schools.

At the center of the controversy is a Georgia-based nonprofit that gobbled up other accrediting agencies in recent years to create a juggernaut whose mere mention rattles the nerves of school districts throughout the region. Accreditation is voluntary, but students at schools without it may risk scholarships and college admissions.

AdvancED, run by hard-charging President and CEO Mark Elgart, has since 2006 built a brand that boasts it drives quality education for 27,000 schools and 16 million students in 69 countries.

But with a seemingly magnetic attraction to discord, AdvancED is rapidly accumulating critics who say the agency has no place meddling in the politics of elected school boards. Accreditation, they complain, has become a weapon wielded by powerful interests — such as the business lobby — when they don’t get their way. And AdvancED stands to benefit.

“They’re enjoying the notoriety this is giving them,” said Sam Wilkinson, a school board member in Burke County, N.C., whose district is set to lose accreditation in June. “In their eyes, it’s made them seem important again.”

Georgia is ground zero for accreditation trouble: Six of the eight districts that AdvancED has put on probation nationwide are here.

Recent tangles with school boards in Atlanta and Wake County, N.C., are drawing a spotlight to AdvancED and its better-known division, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement (SACS). Elgart’s hands-on approach in Atlanta is clear in e-mails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Like some of the districts it polices, AdvancED itself appears to be at a crossroads.

It took in more than $21 million during each of the past two fiscal years, records show. It moved into a spacious new building — a sleek, modern glass castle with high ceilings and ample seminar rooms — in an Alpharetta office park.

But tax records show the agency was more than a half-million dollars in the red in the 2009 fiscal year, with assets that declined by about $3 million. It carries $9.5 million in debt for the new facility.

AdvancED and SACS are facing legislative challenges, too. While Georgia passed a law last year elevating the importance of accreditation, North Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would bar public universities from considering SACS credentials for admissions or scholarships and make the state the primary accreditor, instead.

On its website and in news releases, AdvancED uses bold language, calling itself “the world’s largest education community” and “the world’s largest accrediting and school improvement organization.” Accreditation assures that schools meet key quality standards.

But AdvancED’s critics say it has overstepped its bounds.

“SACS has so much power,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “It’s unfettered power. They can say anything, do anything.”

In an interview with the AJC, Elgart said AdancED is careful with its money and spends it boosting services to districts. He was dismissive of the effect a law change in North Carolina would have on the agency.

Elgart said SACS focuses on school boards because of the turmoil that politically motivated policy flips can cause for school systems, which he believes thrive on consistency — whether voters ask for it or not. He said his agency doesn’t promote anyone else’s agenda.

“We know systems will progress, make progress, when there is stability in the direction that they are headed,” he said. “Stability in their focus, stability in their leadership.”

Opportunity knocks

Clayton County’s accreditation loss in 2008 — the first such censure in nearly 40 years — created opportunity for SACS.

The organization cited ethical lapses and micromanaging by board members. The call for reform was loud and, with a stream of students abandoning Clayton schools, insistent. The state Board of Education convened a reform task force, weighted heavily with high-profile business leaders from the Metro Atlanta and Georgia chambers of commerce.

Business groups have long involved themselves in Georgia’s public education. They are motivated not only by contracts with school districts, but also by concern that ailing schools will make it harder to recruit and retain industries. The Metro Chamber in particular has promoted Atlanta school board candidates and raised or contributed millions of dollars for special district projects.

Despite the heavy hitters on the state board task force, its proposals went nowhere during the chaotic 2009 legislative session. The next year brought success, however, with Elgart sitting on a revamped panel.

State lawmakers in 2010 handed AdvancED unprecedented power over Georgia school districts.

School board members may be elected, the law said, but carrying out voters’ wishes would no longer be enough. The new law allowed the governor to suspend and reappoint school board members when SACS threatened accreditation.

“This elected office should be characterized and treated differently from other elected offices where the primary duty is independently to represent constituent views,” the law said. Maintaining accreditation, it said, is “essential.”

The legislation mirrored Elgart’s own philosophy.

It’s not undemocratic to usurp elected school board members’ authority when they misbehave, Elgart argues. What’s undemocratic is when members become so set in personal agendas that they stubbornly vote in blocs without considering underlying issues.

“You’re voted in by a district but your responsibility is to all the students,” he said.

After the Georgia bill’s signing, AdvancED and the two chambers issued a celebratory news release. Elgart hoped Georgia had set an example: “With this legislation, Georgia will lead the nation as a model for local school board governance,” he said.

The reform effort also led Elgart to work closely with local business leaders who for years had aggressively sought to influence Atlanta Public Schools.

Changing of the guard

Revelations of widespread cheating on state tests in Atlanta and an ensuing rift on the school board threw the business community into despair last year.

Its influence suddenly looked tenuous. The chamber had cultivated relationships with Superintendent Beverly Hall and Chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks, but it became increasingly clear Hall would leave at school year’s end. Five school board members had ousted Butler Burks, saying she mishandled the cheating scandal. The board quarrelled over whether that vote was legal.

In October, the new chairman, Khaatim Sherrer El, asked SACS to mediate. But Elgart’s role quickly escalated from peacemaker to judge.

E-mails obtained by the AJC show Elgart drafted a memo on Oct. 23, signing Burks’ and El’s names, proposing the district consider hiring AdvancED for “mediation and professional support services.” The memo said El would step down and Burks would regain the chair.

That plan, it said, “will remove the concerns of the State of Georgia and SACS regarding the state charter.”

The memo, Elgart told El and Burks, should be sent to the entire board.

It never was. El did not step aside.

Elgart now says El agreed to the moves during a phone call but changed his mind. However, records show El sent Elgart an e-mail after the call and before the memo, rejecting the idea of restoring Burks.

Two days after drafting the memo that went nowhere, Elgart sent a formal letter to Hall and Burks, whom he called the board’s “chairperson,” warning that the district’s accreditation was at risk because of failures to meet the AdvancED standard on governance and leadership.

Three months later, despite a judge’s ruling that El’s chairmanship was legitimate, SACS issued a scathing report castigating the board for infighting. It said some members’ actions “eroded public trust.” SACS put the district on probation.

The report said SACS had interviewed 30 “stakeholders” from 10 groups – three of which were composed largely of Atlanta business leaders. Criticism fell largely on El and the other four members who voted him in as chairman. The public heaped blame on the board.

But Fort, the state senator, said the report glossed over more substantive problems facing the district — such as the cheating scandal and questions about the graduation rate’s validity — while supporting a view sympathetic to the chamber.

“The charges in the SACS report are vague,” Fort said. “They wanted to tell board members how to vote, which I think is beyond the pale.”

State Rep. Gloria Tinubu, D-Atlanta, called the report “manufactured,” “unprofessional” and “almost gossip.” She said it wrongly scolded the group that was seeking to get to the bottom of the district’s test-cheating problems.

“The thing that is so amazing is they are doing the very thing they are accusing school boards of, that is micromanaging, meddling,” she said.

Furthermore, she said the report supports the minority who are viewed as retaining chamber backing. “It’s the same cast of characters that are driving this thing,” as the school board reform law, she said.

Elgart now says that rumors that SACS will only accept El’s resignation as chair are false.

SACS downgraded the district’s accreditation because the nine members could not work together, by their own admission, he said. As far as the chamber goes, Elgart — who has also sat on a chamber committee — said SACS has distanced itself from the group since becoming involved in Atlanta.

SACS has faced similar criticism elsewhere.

Wilkinson, from Burke County, N.C., said SACS’ report on his board was “vague,” negative and, from what he can gather, inaccurate in parts.

“They leaned heavily on the opinions of a few rather than the massive total of people that they were talking to,” he said. “I tried to make the point to them that we were functioning. ... Even though some of us may not like each other, on the really important issues, we have settled them.”

Buddy Armour, another Burke board member, said SACS shouldn’t have downgraded Burke for past squabbles. “It’s called democracy,” he said.

In Wake County, N.C., AdvancED’s heavy hand almost cost it a client.

Last year, the NAACP complained to SACS about the school board’s move to dismantle a long-standing student assignment plan that sought to achieve socioeconomic balance in schools. A new board majority advocated the change.

AdvancED threatened to downgrade the district’s accreditation. But the board didn’t back down.

“A school board cannot be required to cede its statutory authority over student assignment as part of an accreditation review,” board lawyer Ann Majestic wrote to AdvancED.

The board considered dropping AdvancED accreditation altogether, but didn’t, and in March, the organization put Wake on “warned” status — a step from probation. Elgart said recently the primary problem has been the board majority “ignoring” data that showed the current student assignment system was successful.

The disputes involving SACS, AdvancED and Elgart in North Carolina have been unpleasant enough that state representatives introduced a bill March that could undercut the organization. The proposal would bar public colleges and universities from using information related to high school accreditation to determine admissions, loans or scholarships except when the state does the accrediting.

The bill would also make the state responsible for developing a rigorous accreditation program for public schools.

Relinquished power

What is it about Georgia school boards that has led them to dominate SACS’ probation list, accounting for six of the eight? The organization accredits 6,000 districts nationwide.

Part of the reason may lie with the state.

Elgart said that, unlike in some states, Georgia’s education department has little power to intercede if districts have problems, so residents learned to complain to SACS, instead.

The state department has also handed SACS additional authority to work with Georgia districts. Former State Superintendent Kathy Cox signed a memo with SACS in 2008 pledging to collaborate on “school improvement planning, external peer review, training activities, and related activities.”

Tinubu said that, unlike in states such as Maryland, Georgia’s education department does not provide oversight for SACS’ activities.

“They’ve really given over the powers of the state to this private entity that has no one to supervise them,” she said. “They’ve jumped into bed with SACS, if you ask me. They are co-partners with this effort to disenfranchise local school boards.”

Original Article: http://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta/private-agency-public-power-904451.html

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