A lot has changed for Atlanta Public Schools in two years.
In 2021, the last time that Atlanta School Board seats were up for grabs, Lisa Herring was the Atlanta Public Schools superintendent, and the COVID-19 pandemic was still significantly disrupting classrooms. Now, as Atlanta voters decide who should fill five of the nine seats on Nov. 7, Herring has joined the U.S. Department of Education after the school board didn’t renew her contract, and COVID-19 is much less of a health threat in K-12 schools.
But there are still plenty of challenges to tackle. Here are several key issues that APS is facing for the 2023-24 school year and beyond.
The funding cliff
Educators around the country are wondering how steeply they’ll fall from the “funding cliff.”
The ominous phrase refers to the emergency federal COVID-19 relief money that schools have received since 2021. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, has doled out $190 billion to U.S. public school districts, or nearly $4,000 per student, but those funds have to be used by Sept. 30, 2024.
APS’s share has been $300 million over the past three years, including $99 million for the 2023-2024 school year. The $1.66 billion APS budget is flush with COVID-19 funds for this year, but then what?
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’ first big RICO case was back in 2013 when, as assistant district attorney, she convened a grand jury that indicted then-APS Superintendent Beverly Hall and other educators on allegations of changing students’ scores on standardized tests.
Meria Carstarphen took the APS superintendent job in 2014 but left in 2020 after the school board did not renew her contract. Herring only lasted two years as her replacement. Danielle Battle is the interim superintendent, until the board picks a permanent replacement. Many board candidates say Atlanta’s superintendent shuffle is costly and destabilizing for APS district leadership.
Students in crisis
The kids are not alright. In addition to learning loss from remote schooling and shutdowns, the pandemic exacerbated trends of K-12 students reporting elevated stress levels, depression and anxiety, and other mental health issues. In Georgia, the number of young people ages 3 to 17 who reported experiencing anxiety and depression rose from 8.5% in 2016 to 10.4% by 2020. The U.S. Surgeon General has proclaimed a youth “mental health pandemic.”
That’s compounded by the cost of living crisis for many APS families that’s worsened since pandemic-aid programs have ended. About half of metro-Atlanta K-12 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. More than 2,000 — or over 4% — of almost 50,000 APS students reported homelessness during the 2022-23 school year. These low-income students have higher rates of chronic absenteeism and lower test scores in math and reading.
Poor academic performance
The good news for Atlanta Public Schools is that it falls in the middle range of performance for 25 large urban public U.S. school districts as far as math and reading scores for K-12 students. The bad news is that those scores fell across the board nationally, due to learning loss from the pandemic.
That’s according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” which examined reading and math levels for fourth- and eighth-graders. The average national declines in math scores were the highest recorded over three decades of testing. Just 16% of APS eighth-graders and 27% of fourth-graders scored as proficient in math. For reading, only about a quarter of fourth- and eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency level.