Georgia Charter Schools: Engines of Educational Improvement

January 19th, 2007 by Leave a Comment

By Andrew Broy

Georgia’s charter schools are outperforming traditional schools and are serving a more diverse and economically disadvantaged population.

Theses are the conclusions of the Georgia Department of Education’s Annual Report on Charter Schools, released recently by the State Board of Education. Based on 2005-2006 data, the report corrects many of the misperceptions that surround charter schools and clearly shows that Georgia’s charter schools are succeeding more so than charter schools in many other states.

Success is particularly significant in the context of charter schools, where school organizers have, through a contract or “charter,” promised improved student achievement in exchange for freedom from certain state and local rules.

This question of charter school student performance is the subject of increasingly heated national debate. Georgia’s report avoids ideological warfare, however, and offers a clear-eyed look at charter schools, warts and all.  

Taken as a whole, the Annual Report provides compelling evidence that charter schools in Georgia are succeeding. In 2006, charter schools in Georgia met state testing goals – or made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – at a rate that exceeded traditional public schools. In 2006, fully 87.8 percent of Georgia charter schools made AYP, compared to 78.7 percent of traditional public schools.

Charter high school graduation rates also exceed the rates of traditional public high schools, as demonstrated in the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT). In all four content areas – Social Studies, English/Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science – charter school student performance exceeded the performance of traditional public school students. For instance, on the Social Studies section of the GHSGT, 92 percent of charter school students met or exceeded expectations, versus 86 percent of traditional public school students. Likewise, on the Science section of the GHSGT, 87 percent of charter school students met or exceeded expectations, compared with 73 percent for traditional public school students.

These numbers are even more impressive when one looks at the trend data over time. In 2004, for instance, only 60 percent of charter schools students passed the Social Studies section of the GHSGT, compared to 82 percent of traditional public school students. While traditional public school student performance remained relatively stable over the subsequent two-year period, charter school student performance increased dramatically, to a 92 percent pass rate. 

This trend repeated itself in each subject area. In 2004, charter school students scored lower than traditional public school students on every content area of the GHSGT. By 2006, that had completely reversed and now charter school students score higher.

These performance levels should be lauded, but they should not obscure the reality that some of our students – in charter schools and traditional public schools alike – are performing poorly. Moreover, given the relatively small number of charter high schools – 17 – in the state, the significance of these trends should not be overstated. Nevertheless, these data strongly suggest that Georgia should encourage more charter schools to use the curricular flexibility allowed by Georgia law to help improve student learning.

When Georgia enacted charter school legislation in 1993, there was concern that charter schools would “skim” more affluent students from traditional public schools. In fact, during the 2005-2006 school year, 54 percent of charter school students qualified for free and reduced lunch (FRL), compared to 50 percent for students statewide.

In addition, Georgia charter schools are more likely to enroll racial minorities: 41 percent of charter schools students are African-American compared to the statewide average of 38 percent; about 9 percent of charter school students are Hispanic compared to 8 percent statewide; and 5 percent are Asian compared to 3 percent statewide.

As with traditional schools, people should be careful about painting a broad stroke without looking at the data more deeply. Truthfully, some Georgia charter schools are performing exceptionally well, while some are struggling. But overall, the picture that emerges from the Annual Report is clear: Charters are high-performing schools serving a population that, on average, is more racially diverse and less affluent than Georgia generally. This alone should be enough to convince Georgians that charter schools deserve serious consideration as an engine of educational improvement.

Thirteen years ago, Georgia engaged in a rancorous policy debate over the existence of charter schools. Thankfully, that era is over. Charter schools are now a prominent feature of public education in Georgia. As a result, we can turn our collective attention to the real challenge: ensuring that our charter schools are financially viable, accountable for student results, and models of innovation that can benefit public education generally.

Andrew Broy is the Director of Charter Schools for the State of Georgia, a former litigator in the Education, Government, and Civil Rights practice of Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, and a former Teach for America corps member.  The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (January 19, 2007). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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