Charter Schools in Georgia and the Families who Need Them

Drew Charter School in Atlanta.

When you listen to the stories of the moms and dads whose children desperately need school choice, you get a glimpse of the passion that fuels the school choice movement. As a parent, there is nothing more gut-wrenching than to watch your child suffer anguish everyday in a school that does not meet his or her needs. So what options are available when school is mandated based on a zip code, and options are denied those who may not have the bank account to afford private schooling?

Public charter schools have been an effective option for families in Georgia. They receive more flexibility and autonomy in exchange for more accountability: perform or else be closed. Recent CRCT results indicate the successes of public charter schools in our state, particularly independent or start-up charter schools. For example, Drew Charter School serves a disadvantaged community in Atlanta. Students at Drew scored 12.4% higher than the district average in Reading and 27.6% higher in Math.

Another high achieving school in DeKalb, the 2-year-old Museum School of Avondale Estates, achieved 100% in Reading two years in a row. Math scores showed 97.5% meeting or exceeding standards.  The list of achievements continues at public charter schools in Georgia when compared to CRCT performances at traditional public schools throughout their districts. And the longer a student remains enrolled at a charter school, the more that student’s testing results improve.

But if public charter schools that are independent are so efective, why are there so few in existence in Georgia- less than 2% of total public schools? Why aren’t more public charter school petitions being approved by local school boards?

Recently, the rancor has gotten so ugly in some local school board meetings in Georgia that sitting school board members have had the temerity to tell citizens to move out of the district if they need something that better fits the individualized needs of their children. Perhaps those school board members have been too busy blasting parents to notice the ongoing downturn in the housing market and high unemployment rate that makes such callous and unsolicited advice virtually impossible.

The divisiveness within the educational system has intensified as GAE, or Georgia Association of Educators, many superintendents, and certain local school board members have led the charge seeking to discredit public charter schools and to reject as many charter petitions as possible. Some students who love their public charter schools are even frightened to wear school spirit shirts in their own communities! Adults have gone too far when they have intimidated their neighbors to this extent.

Recently, an uniformed citizen wrote in a publication that “the amendment takes power from local school boards that usually listen to parental desires”. No statement could be further from reality.

Instead, if one follows the money that has been contributed to the anti-Amendment
One group Vote Smart!, one will find the power bases that are opposing the Charter School Amendment. Georgia Representative Edward Lindsey recently commented in the AJC on the financial backing of such opposition groups:

“This isn’t about ideology,” Lindsey says. “It’s about turf. It’s about those folks who have a vested interest, no matter how mediocre the present may be, in not changing.”

The turf in question is the power to approve charter schools — and thus how some public education funds are spent.

Thirty-four of them are current or former superintendents. That group gave more than $16,000.

Another 30 are other types of school-system administrators: area superintendents, assistant superintendents, directors of some kind or another. These folks contributed an additional $14,000.

Eleven members of various school boards around Georgia gave almost $4,000. Ten principals shelled out $2,576.

In all, almost 60 percent of the Vote SMART! donors and more than a third of its donations came from people who run our traditional public schools. That’s one bit of turf.

Then there are the professional organizations: the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Georgia School Boards Association and Georgia School Superintendents Association. Fifteen employees of these groups donated more than $15,000.

Additionally, the funds to oppose the charter school amendment were contributed by for-profit companies that traditional public school systems hire when they outsource projects and contracts for work.

In fact, 35 people or firms who do business with traditional public schools, from attorneys and consultants to architects and contractors, have given more than $32,000….

Georgia’s educational system involves money, power, politics, and bureaucracy that exerts control at the expense of Georgia’s students and families. Opposing the Charter School Amendment will deny students from lower income neighborhoods or disadvantaged circumstances a school where they can thrive and succeed. The fact is that families want more educational options and freedom to choose a school that is the right fit for their son or daughter. Contrary to spurious assertions, public charter schools in Georgia serve a higher proportion of minority students than do traditional schools.

While taxpayers fund local public schools through property taxes, not one cent will go to students in a state-approved public charter school in Georgia due to legislation that outlines the new funding formula, HB 797. Local districts will hoard the windfall of tax dollars from every family that makes the choice to send their child to a different school, including the option of a public charter school. Local school boards and superintendents should be celebrating the victory they achieved during the last legislative session in demanding that all property taxes fund only certain public schools, not state-approved public charter schools.

The state of Georgia continues to spend more on education than any other state in the Southeast, yet if Georgians simply continue the status quo, then our state will continue to rank near the bottom in education nationally.

The storm that has hit the educational system in Georgia has created some strange bedfellows and contortions of logic. The entrenched education establishment is shrieking as their power and their turf are being threatened. Still, when the twister stops spinning, it should not be Georgia’s students on which the house falls. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain: the great educrats may have spoken, but the yellow brick road is paved with educational options and freedom for all.

Rhonda Gatch

The Charter School Amendment: Freeing Students in Georgia to Rise to the Top

School Choice Rally at the Georgia State Capitol

In Georgia, a crucial amendment is being considered by the General Assembly.  The Charter School Amendment, HR 1162, has passed the House of Representatives with a bipartisan 2/3 vote.  Now that amendment is held up in the Senate because the Democratic Caucus Chairman refuses to release his members to vote their conscience.  Students will be the losers if all members are not allowed to represent the desires of their constituents.

UPDATE: Some Senators have decided to break away from the Democratic Caucus and take a stand for students.

Last Summer, a controversial 4-3 decision by the Georgia State Supreme Court cast down the Georgia Charter Schools Commission that had approved many charter schools.  This ruling was very controversial because the majority stated that local school boards held “exclusive” control over creating schools in Georgia.  This leap in logic was stark since local and county school boards were never mentioned in our state constitutions until 1945.  However, the majority claimed that their view went back to 1877, without any basis in historical fact whatsoever.  Rather, the state’s role in education historically has been one of a partner in education decisions.

The conservative justice David Nahmias wrote the dissenting opinion, linked here.

He painstakingly documented the true historical context establishing the State’s role as a partner in establishing schools, whether “common” or “special” schools.  There had never before been any question about the state of Georgia’s ability to establish schools.  Now, this controversial ruling raises many questions:  Should the state of Georgia continue to appropriate almost half of its total budget-around $7 billion- to local school districts with zero oversight or good stewardship?

The fact of the matter is, what’s contained in that decision needs to make anyone who is concerned about any of the state reform packages that we’ve passed, or any of these state initiatives that we have, including teacher pay scales and everything else, it better give you pause because the language is expansive.  The language does say that basically our job is to write a check and shut up, and I’m not even sure that we should be writing a check…

concluded House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey.

The real travesty in this current education debacle is the suffering foisted on students who may lose the charter school they love -such as Ivy Prep or nationally-awarded Fulton Science Academy- and be forced to return to failing, and often dangerous, schools.  Georgia has been a leader in providing school choice and charter schools for years now.  But as our Speaker Pro Tem, Rep. Jan Jones has pointed out,

In 2007, local school boards denied every single start-up charter school application. In 2008, 25 of 27 were denied. Since 2008 only four have been approved.  Less than two percent of Georgia students have access to a charter school even 10 years after the first state-approved charter and, separately, the first locally-approved charter opened.

Organizations that oppose this legislation include the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Georgia School Boards Association, and the Georgia School Superintendents Association, despite the fact that local funding will not be used to pay for charter schools approved under this legislation.

Charter schools frequently benefit students from low-achieving school districts and lower incomes the most.  These students are mandated into failing schools based on their zip code with no alternatives whatsoever.  Local school boards have participated in a concerted effort to block approval of new charter schools as well as renewals of existing charters.  The educational establishment is battling competition in lockstep formation nationwide.

Free markets and competition provide real educational options for families- but a monopolistic system offering a one-size-fits-all mandate will never provide the innovations necessary to elevate students in Georgia to the success they deserve.


UPDATE:  The Charter School Amendment passed the GA Senate (40-16) on March 19th, 2012.  Now the amendment will appear on the ballot in November for voters to decide whether to allow educational options in Georgia.  Please support alternative choices for ALL students in Georgia, regardless of bank account or zip code!

-Rhonda Gatch