Atlanta Board of Education candidate Ken Zeff’s resume is replete with high level charter school-related work.
He spent the mid-aughts as a White House Fellow and U.S. Department of Education policy consultant, participating in an effort to tweak former President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy. It had come under fire for what critics charged was an overemphasis on students’ standardized test performance, by making public schools’ federal funding contingent on their test scores.
He spent the next half-decade, from 2007 to 2012, as a charter school executive in Los Angeles, where he served as the chief operations officer for Green Dot Public Schools.
Zeff moved to Atlanta in 2012 to take a job with the Fulton County Schools. There, he oversaw the public school district’s transition to a charter system governance model, first as chief strategy and innovation officer and then as interim superintendent. Under Zeff, Fulton County Schools became the largest charter school system in Georgia.
Now, he’s the executive director of local education nonprofit Learn4Life, which counts eight local public school districts, including Atlanta Public Schools (APS), as clients.
But don’t call Zeff a charter school advocate. “I don’t know if I’d characterize myself that way,” he told Atlanta Civic Circle. “I’m a public education advocate.”
The charter school debate
In 2023, the debate over charter schools’ role in public education is far from over. Charter schools tap into local taxpayer money, but they are run independently from the public school districts that fund them and are rarely unionized.
For the current school year, the budget for APS’s 19 charter and six partner schools increased by 13% to $237 million (out of a total APS budget of $1.66 billion). That reflects the growing number of metro Atlanta students enrolled in them, 10,485, a fifth of the district’s total enrollment.
Despite the enrollment growth, APS hasn’t approved a charter school in years. In fact, the Atlanta Board of Education voted unanimously Sept. 5 to deny the application for a public charter school designed for neurodivergent students. The school board said it could decrease the population at schools that are already underutilized.
Considering his past, one might assume that Zeff—who is running against District 3 incumbent Michelle Olympiadis in the Nov. 7 school board election—would have voted differently.
Not necessarily, he says. Zeff contends that he’s the only one in the school board race to be involved in shutting down any charter schools. Just after he became chief strategy and innovation officer for Fulton County Schools in 2012, the school board revoked the charters for Fulton Science Academy Middle School, Fulton Science Academy High School and Fulton Sunshine Academy for financial mismanagement and other issues. Zeff’s opponent, Olympiadis, did not respond to a request for comment.
The three Fulton charter schools were operated by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who’s lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. President Recep Erdogan’s government has blamed Gulen and his followers for the bloodiest coup attempt in Turkey’s modern history on July 15, 2016.
A 2012 audit found that three Fulton County charter schools had improperly granted hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to businesses and groups, many of them with ties to the Gulen movement.
At the time, Zeff told the Fulton County school board that the schools associated with the Gulen movement were in a “downward spiral” and “this is not a hole they can dig themselves out of.”
“Freedom and flexibility”
In 2016, Zeff talked shop about systemic changes to Missouri’s public education system with gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens, an old friend from their time as White House Fellows in the Bush administration. Greitens’ press secretary told the Springfield News-Leader in 2018 that Zeff was a “friend and advisor on education policy to the Governor for a while.”
As part of the conversation, Zeff sent Grietens a “Freedom and Flexibility” memo in May 2016, when he was the interim superintendent for Fulton County Schools, outlining his ideas for Missouri education. Grietens was subsequently elected governor, but resigned in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct and campaign finance violations.
“Freedom” means to “treat teachers like professionals and remove burdensome regulations that lead to frustration and mistrust,” Zeff wrote in the memo, according to the News-Leader. “All public schools, district and charter, will get freedom from the education bureaucracy.”
“Flexibility,” he continued, calls for giving teachers and principals “the ability of their unique communities. That can’t happen from a distant bureaucracy far away from students and the classroom.”
Practically speaking, that meant “school choice for parents through charter school expansion while holding those schools accountable for growth,” Zeff wrote in the memo. “… That is the proper role of government. Not to pick winners and losers, but to set a standard and hold folks accountable for meeting that standard.”
But Zeff says he’s against the kind of school choice that would harm public education. That includes a Georgia Senate bill introduced in the 2023 legislative session that would have given $6,500 per student to those attending public schools ranked in the bottom quartile by family income to defray the cost of private school or home school. That bill narrowly failed in the legislature in March.
“Look, if parents want to send their kids to independent or religious schools, that’s their right. And it’s not for me to say. I just don’t feel that it should be taxpayer-supported,” Zeff says.
But choice within public schools is different.
Zeff characterizes his guiding educational philosophy not as pro-charter but as anti-consolidation. He says his aim is to decentralize public school districts, so that less money and decision-making power is concentrated at the administrative, central office level and more goes to individual schools.
“The growth in [the APS budget] is moving towards the central office, instead of moving to the schools–[by] 20% last year,” he said. “Those are resources that can be better deployed at our schools. And when we do that, we unlock momentum in our schools, we unlock the governance council and the GO Teams. We unlock an entrepreneurial spirit in schools.”
GO Teams are a local governance council for each APS school, made up of parents, teachers, community members and the school principal. GO Teams were adopted in 2016, after APS became a charter system.
Today, Zeff says he wants to bring some nuance into the charter school discourse.
“This debate about charter schools—that either [they are] good or bad, I think is the wrong conversation,” said Zeff. “I am not dogmatic about charter schools. The high-performing ones should be allowed to exist, and the low-performing charter schools should be on a corrective path or should be shut down.”
Zeff says that his charter-school heavy resume is a bonus because it gives him “credibility” within the charter school world to communicate with them properly. “I can talk to charters and say, ‘Look, you’re underwater here–here’s some things that we need to do to get right, or you can’t exist.”
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Fulton County has a charter school system and Zeff did not manage schools in Tennessee while employed by Green Dot Public Schools]