A Celebration in Education: 25 Years of Charters

By Benita M. Dodd

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation helped establish Tech High, a STEM charter high school in Atlanta Public Schools. The school was successful academically but succumbed to the bureaucratic burdens of the school district.

The Georgia Public Policy Foundation helped establish Tech High, a STEM charter high school in Atlanta Public Schools. The school was successful academically but succumbed to the bureaucratic burdens of the school district.

Twenty-five years ago this month, City Academy High School opened in Saint Paul, Minn., the first charter school in the nation after Minnesota’s state law authorized the opening of eight “results-oriented, student-centered public schools.” As it celebrates its silver anniversary, City Academy can take credit for inspiring 165 charter schools with nearly 54,000 students in Minnesota today.

But wait, there’s more!

By the 2016-17 school year, there were more than 6,900 charter schools operating across the nation, with more than 3.1 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That’s 6 percent of the nation’s student population.

Georgia’s 1994 charter law allowed traditional public schools to convert to charter schools and the first three opened in 1995: Addison Elementary in Cobb County, Midway Elementary in Forsyth, and Charles Ellis Montessori in Chatham. A 1998 law allowed for the creation of start-up (new) charter schools, and the first was chartered in 1998.  

Today, according to the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia has conversion charters, start-up charters, state charter schools and charter school systems. About 5 percent of Georgia’s students are in charter schools, 15 percent total if counting charter systems.

Somewhere along the way, charter schools began being referred to as “public charter schools.” To understand why, and to understand why charter school numbers are so low, one must understand the bureaucratic resistance to charter schools and to choice in education.

And that means explaining charter schools. They are indeed public schools. They are created through a five-year contract (“charter”) with the school board or other authorizer that allows the school flexibility, independence and the ability to innovate to meet its students’ needs. In exchange, the school promises performance accountability. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can be – and have been – closed for failing to deliver promised results.

Charters may not charge tuition and, unlike magnet schools, there are no entry requirements or “cherry-picking” students.  A lottery takes place if there are more applicants than spaces.

In many districts, obtaining local school board authorization is well nigh impossible. Such independence is anathema to bureaucrats. Some insist these schools “take funds away” from public schools – overlooking that they are, in fact, public schools.

Charter schools, most would agree, are only as good as their leadership, and the best have great leaders and committed, supportive faculty and involved parents. Unfortunately, few charter schools are funded at the level of traditional public schools, and facility funds historically are not included. There is also resistance to “outside” corporate operators for these schools.

As a result, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission was created in 2008, a state-level, second-chance authorizer to reconsider rejected applications. In a 2011 challenge, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional; a 2012 constitutional amendment enabled the Legislature to re-establish the commission.

Charter school outcomes are as diverse as the students. At the more prestigious charter schools, parents plan years ahead, even relocating to get their children in line. Some schools excel in their district while others fail to impress. It’s important, therefore, to compare individual student outcomes with the academic performance of their peers in the original setting.

Many students are low-income, at-risk students who struggle to perform in traditional districts and getting them back on track is arduous. Others are introverts, bullied or lost in large schools.

Not every family could afford or access private schools, especially when charter schools were created. Choices in public education are crucial to meet the different needs of these diverse students. Happily, today’s students can also choose from online schools or themed schools – arts, technology, music, language, science, even special needs.

Critics might dismiss charter schools, pointing to the 2017 EdNext Poll on School Reform that found a 12 percent decline in support for public charter schools. But they would be overlooking how many options are available today. Today, there is growing acceptance of tuition tax credit scholarships, now available in 16 states including Georgia, as well as of education vouchers.

Twenty-five years later, opponents might crow that charter students are a mere 6 percent of the population. Supporters, on the other hand, celebrate how charters opened the door to public education choice, then widened it. Today, families who seek innovation, flexibility, accountability and a greater role in choosing how their children are educated have so much more to choose from. And that’s a happy anniversary.

Benita Dodd, who was appointed in September to the Board of Governors of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view 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 (September 15, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.