By Benita M. Dodd
National Charter Schools Week, held May 12-18, is a worthwhile celebration: More than a quarter-century ago, the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota; more than 20 years ago, Georgia’s first start-up charter school was authorized.
So how is it that so many Georgians remain unaware or, worse, are antipathetic, when it comes to this education option for nearly 75,000 Georgia students?
Some parents are even unaware even that charter schools are, in fact, public schools, a failing that has led choice advocates to employ the term “public charter schools.” And when overburdened news reporters are spoon-fed by anti-choice advocates, this often perpetuates the myths that charter schools:
First, what is a charter public school? They are independent, tuition-free public schools that obtain permission, through a charter (performance contract), to operate. They are given greater flexibility than a traditional public school in return for achieving certain, higher standards. Flexibility takes many forms: online learning; a science-, technology-, language- or art-focused curriculum; longer school days; weekend classes; summer boot camps; uniforms; strict discipline; or another innovative approach. The charter undergoes periodic review and can be revoked if the school fails to meet the agreed standards.
The charter is usually authorized by a public school system. The Georgia State Charter Schools Commission has become an alternative authorizer in sometimes-resistant school districts. Its mission is “authorizing high quality charter schools that provide students with better educational opportunities than they would otherwise receive in traditional district schools.” “Better” means that these 35 commission-authorized charter schools must outperform surrounding traditional schools a child would have attended.
Parents make a conscious decision to enroll their child in a charter school. Unlike magnet schools, where admission is based on academic testing, Georgia’s charter schools, by and large, must enroll all applicants until the seats are filled. If there are more applicants than seats, a lottery is held. Strangely, despite this deliberate choice on parents’ part, opponents frequently criticize the racial makeup of a charter school as indications of discrimination and a return to segregation when it in fact reflects community demographics.
Choosing a charter school requires a huge commitment by parents. Most parents enroll their child in a charter school because the neighborhood school does not meet the child’s needs. Most charter schools are unable to fund school buses, and transportation is the parents’ responsibility.
Do charter schools “take money away” from public schools? A reminder: Charter schools are public schools. They promise to innovate but, on average, receive less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools in the district to do so. State-authorized charter schools, which receive the state portion of per-student funding, get supplementary funding equal to the state average or what schools in the charter school’s district receive in local taxes, whichever is less. Many local charters operate with fewer resources and little facilities funding or cooperation from the school district.
One study found Georgia charter schools pay more than their traditional district school and national charter school counterparts for less adequate facilities. Funding for facilities ($100,000 per school) was authorized by the Legislature in 2017, but has yet to be allocated in the state budget.
And yet, an eight-city University of Arkansas study found, charter schools yield better educational outcomes for less money than traditional public schools, with Atlanta’s charters leading on cost-effectiveness and return on investment.
What about academic results? With just one exception, empirical studies find charters produce academic benefits and no harm. But the needs are not necessarily academic. A child could need discipline, more structure, an escape from bullying or simply a different way of learning.
Georgia is still far from “backpack funding,” where the money goes where the student goes. Until then, parents who can’t afford private schools and seek the best possible public education for their child deserve the choice. When there is an opportunity to innovate in public education, Georgia can’t afford to sit on its hands.
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and serves on the board of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.