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Rob Jenkins: How did SACS wind up as the villain?

Rob Jenkins

Rob Jenkins

How did SACS wind up as the villain?

Like most metro Atlantans with an interest in education, I've followed the drama surrounding the DeKalb County School Board with a mixture of fascination and horror.

I'm sure you know the story: after the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools threatened to revoke the DeKalb School System's accreditation last year, citing (among other things) inappropriate behavior by school board members, Gov. Deal stepped in and removed six members of the board.

Most observers concede that it had to be done, but it was still an ugly situation. It was also a stark reminder of what can happen in a community when elected officials (allegedly) put their own interests ahead of what's best for constituents.

Although I'm fortunate to live in a county that appears to have relatively functional schools, I can't help but look at DeKalb and think, "There but for the grace of God go we."

One recent development, however, puzzles me, and that is the tendency among some to hold SACS responsible for the DeKalb debacle. Those people obviously don't understand what SACS is or how it works, because blaming SACS for a system's poor performance is like blaming the Bar Association for a lawyer's misconduct.

As a college professor and administrator for the past quarter century, I've had a great deal of experience with one arm of SACS, the Commission on Colleges. SACS's other arm, the one that deals with k-12 school systems, functions a little differently, but the principles are much the same.

What people need to understand is that SACS is not an unelected governmental entity, as some have insinuated, nor is it a private consulting firm (although it is privately owned). Rather, SACS is literally what its name suggests: an "association of colleges and schools."

In that sense, SACS is more like the NCAA than a regulatory agency. It exists to promote the will of its members, and the standards it adopts and attempts to enforce are determined, collectively, by those members.

In other words, SACS -- like other regional accrediting bodies around the country -- serves to monitor member schools and systems, ensuring that they live up to the standards they agreed to. SACS doesn't even have a large enforcement staff, instead relying on experienced professionals from member institutions to audit each other.

Schools and systems that meet the criteria set forth by their association earn "accreditation," which is basically a seal of approval, a sign that the school or system is functioning as it should academically, financially and politically.

Those who don't meet the criteria can be placed on probation or, in the worst-case scenario, be denied accreditation. Students from unaccredited schools may not be able to transfer, get into college, or receive financial aid.

So I understand why people in DeKalb are upset. But if they're going to shoot somebody (figuratively speaking, of course), it shouldn't be the messenger.

Rob Jenkins is a local freelance writer and the author of Family Man: The Art of Surviving Domestic Tranquility. E-mail Rob at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com, follow him on Twitter@rjenkinsgdp, and visit www.familymanthebook.com.