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What is “school choice”? LEAD Academy is the perfect example

There is no better example of the disaster that unregulated, undefined “school choice” can bring than Montgomery’s first charter school.

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LEAD Academy is school choice. The four-year-old charter school in Montgomery is the most common outcome of school choice: Mismanagement, alleged fraud, allegations of special needs children being pushed away, scandal after scandal and, perhaps most importantly, educational outcomes that are typically worse overall for students. 

The troubled charter was hit with another scandal last week, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture said the school’s lunch vendor, Crave Cafeteria Solutions, improperly inflated the number of students served, according to al.com. 

Crave blames LEAD’s leadership, saying the school was tasked with counting the students and meals served and reporting that information to the USDA. LEAD officials, in a lawsuit, are blaming Crave and have sued for $2 million. That’s the cost of the over-inflated meals that the USDA wants returned by LEAD. 

Small problem: LEAD doesn’t have the money. Because of course it doesn’t. 

The head of the Charter School Commission said LEAD’s leadership was a “major issue” and that the school is “failing.” You don’t say? 

LEAD has been the picture of dysfunction and mismanagement since before the doors even opened. It missed deadline after deadline to locate a building, failed its application review and was initially stopped from opening by a Montgomery Circuit Court judge because a majority of the Charter School Commission didn’t approve its application. 

And then, somehow, things just got worse. 

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A former principal filed a lawsuit in 2019 alleging all sorts of misdeeds on the part of board president Charlotte Meadows, who founded the school. The most damning of the allegations was that Meadows deterred special needs students from attending LEAD in order to keep educational costs down. She did this by improperly failing to provide required services for special needs students. 

But the problems didn’t stop there. The allegations also included mishandled money and no-bid contracts going to family and friends. Numerous teachers corroborated the allegations, and provided even more details of problems. 

Then, on top of all of that, in 2021, LEAD’s test scores in third-, fourth- and fifth-grade math and science showed the school, while apparently pushing away special needs students and taking in students who could provide their own transportation, still scored lower than the surrounding Montgomery schools. Less than three percent of the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were proficient in math. 

That same year, evaluators for School Quality Report conducted a site visit and found that only 38 percent of LEAD’s classrooms had adequate levels of engagement and participation. Staff members expressed serious concerns about the lack of evaluations to identify at-risk students. Teachers told SQR that they were troubled by the large number of students that were performing below grade level, but that they received no additional support to help the students. 

Meadows and the LEAD leadership team responded by requesting to expand. 

That request, thankfully, was denied last month by the Commission. It’s the first time anyone has stepped in to stop the absolute waste of public school dollars. 

Because that’s what “school choice,” as defined by conservatives, actually is: A waste of money. It’s a siphoning of tax dollars from needy public schools into the pockets of private businesses who usually achieve worse results. 

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What, you think LEAD is the only charter in the state under-performing the surrounding public schools? It’s not. In the same 2021 testing results, both Legacy Prep and Acceleration Academy consistently scored lower than surrounding public schools. 

That’s because, typically, the only time charter schools or private schools obtain better results is when the student body is made up of students who have few, if any, learning disabilities or poverty issues. Or when the charter school is unique and targets a specific group of students. 

For you to believe that a school like LEAD could do a better job educating Montgomery-area students than the established public schools, you would have to believe one of several lies: That the public schools are filled with lazy, unmotivated teachers; that the public schools overall are unmotivated to achieve great results because they have no competition; that funding and resources are being squandered. 

All of these are common complaints about public school systems in this state that underperform. In almost every case, they’re over-simplifications of systemic, societal issues that trickle through the doors of schools that serve high numbers of impoverished students.  

Vouchers and “choice” aren’t solving those problems. They’re going to make them worse. 

Stop pretending that these “failing schools” aren’t trying, or that a little motivation, in the form of reduced funding, will be just the push school staff needs to get things turned around. It’s stupid, and it’s nothing more than an excuse to leave our most at-risk kids drowning in a sinking school while you transfer public school dollars to your business friends. 

Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re not saving any kids. You’re not providing a choice. You’re leaving behind the majority of the students in a school you’ve deemed “failing,” and instead of offering that school support and resources, you’re instead pulling more funding. 

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And giving that funding to a school that doesn’t have to follow the same rules, meet the same benchmarks, uphold the same standards. The teachers don’t have to be certified. We don’t know if some are conducting adequate background checks. And we typically have no idea if these private schools are meeting even basic state graduation requirements.  

But no worries, we’ll just toss tens of millions of tax dollars at these unregulated schools – schools that in many cases are less regulated than LEAD Academy. 

What could go wrong?

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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