School Accreditation Agencies Criticized

By AP Wire Service

The regional agencies that grant accreditation to schools are drawing fire from critics who say they’re setting new rules that interfere with the local, democratic control of public schools.

Georgia-based nonprofit AdvancED — and its better-known division, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement, or SACS — is at the center of the storm.

Accreditation is voluntary, but students at schools that aren’t accredited may have trouble getting into college and securing scholarships. AdvancED says accreditation ensures schools meet important quality standards. Critics say it has become a weapon used by powerful interests, like the business lobby, when they don’t get their way, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reports.

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

But Georgia school districts face the most accreditation woes: Of the eight districts in the country that AdvancED has put on probation, six are in Georgia, including Atlanta’s public schools. AdvancED has also recently been at odds with school systems in North Carolina.

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

State legislatures are responding differently to the accrediting agencies. Georgia passed a law last year that makes accreditation more important. Meanwhile, North Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that would make the state the primary accreditor and would bar public universities from taking SACS credentials into account when making admissions or scholarship decisions.

AdvancED President and CEO Mark Elgart said it helps deliver quality education for 27,000 schools and 16 million students in 69 countries. While tax records examined by the newspaper show it was more than half a million dollars in the red in the 2009 fiscal year, it took in more than $21 million in each of the past two fiscal years.

Elgart told the Journal-Constitution his organization is careful with money and uses funds to boost services to districts. SACS focuses on school boards because of the problems politically motivated changes in policy can create for school systems, he said, denying accusations that his agency promotes 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.”

SACS stripped Clayton County of its accreditation in 2008, citing ethical lapses and micromanaging by board members. The Georgia Board of Education created a reform task force heavy with area business leaders. The business community has long involved itself in the state’s public education, motivated by contracts with districts and the strength of schools, which is used as a recruiting tool.

But the task force made little progress, and the Legislature in 2010 passed a law that allowed the governor to suspend and reappoint school board members when SACS threatened accreditation.

After allegations surfaced against Atlanta Public Schools of cheating on standardized tests and subsequent discord among board members, SACS issued a report scolding the board for infighting and said the board’s actions “eroded public trust.” The district was put on probation.

State Rep. Gloria Tinubu, D-Atlanta, called the report manufactured and unprofessional.

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

In Burke County, N.C., Wilkinson said a SACS report on his board was vague, negative and, from what he can tell, not entirely accurate.

The school board in Wake County, N.C., considered dropping AdvancED accreditation altogether after SACS threatened to downgrade the district’s accreditation. The NAACP had complained about the board’s intent to get rid of a student assignment plan meant to create socioeconomic balance in schools. 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 agency in March put the district on “warned” status, one step from probation.

These spats in North Carolina are what prompted some state representatives to introduce a bill that could undercut the organization’s authority by making state accreditation the only one public colleges and universities could consider.

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