By Tony Roberts
As we observe the second National Charter Schools Week since the COVID-19 crisis began, it’s important to reflect on the unique role Georgia’s public charter schools have played in serving communities and ensuring students make academic progress.
Public charter schools, which allow for quick and effective changes to curriculum, staffing and operation, are among the schools uniquely positioned to meet the individual needs of students during the pandemic. The differentiated support that many charter schools provide allows them to effectively serve their unique student populations.
Georgia charter schools currently enroll more Black students than the state’s traditional public schools (49% versus 37%), fewer White students (35% versus 39%) and nearly the same percentage of students with special needs (12% versus 12.9%).
At the start of the pandemic, more than 60,000 Georgia charter school students were told they would have to learn remotely. Public charter schools in our state responded by dispersing digital devices, shifting to virtual learning models and delivering necessities.
The RISE schools, a Fulton County charter network, began offering students and community members under age 18 free meals several times a week. The meals were distributed on school buses along with school work and household items like bottled water, disinfectant and toilet paper. The RISE Schools stayed in continual contact with families and worked to rapidly respond to their needs. As a result, the charter network experienced the highest enrollment in its history this school year.
The International Community School (ICS) in DeKalb County, immediately transitioned to virtual learning, continuing to maintain a strong emphasis on reading and working to ensure students made academic progress. Its ICS COVID-19 Relief Fund offers interpretation support for bilingual families, and food and basic needs disbursed through the ICS Community Resource Center.
Savannah Classical Academy opened its campus this year to students after families expressed support for in-person classes. The school implemented rigorous safety measures, among them UV lighting, ionization systems in the school’s HVAC, desk shields, and the purchase of thousands of masks.
Cherokee Charter Academy also reopened for face-to-face learning. The school purchased sanitizing supplies, reorganized classes to make them smaller and limited exposure by keeping the same group of students together throughout the school day. In-person Saturday sessions were offered to assist students falling behind.
Charter schools like Cherokee Charter Academy, International Community School, The RISE Schools and Savannah Classical Academy play an essential role in Georgia’s public school system. The Georgia General Assembly continues to recognize the contribution of public charter schools and has taken significant steps to ensure charter students are receiving more equitable funding and resources.
More is needed, however, to achieve true parity.
- The vast majority of charter schools authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission outperform the school districts they serve, yet these charter schools receive approximately $900 less per pupil than the state average funding level.
- Local district-approved charter schools receive below average funding in almost every school system currently authorizing charters.
While these equity issues cannot be overlooked, the most obvious funding challenge facing charter schools in Georgia is that of facilities. Charter schools lack access to traditional revenue sources like ESPLOSTs, typically used to finance public school capital projects in local districts. Consequently, charter schools are forced to allocate significant portions of their annual operating budgets to cover facility costs while traditional schools r receive supplemental funding to offset capital expenditures.
Funding and resource equity for public charter schools is long overdue, especially as it relates to school facilities. Local school districts need to be more open and transparent about how school funding decisions are made at the district level because charter schools are entitled to their fair share of state, local and federal dollars. Children attending public charter schools deserve the same level of support as children in all other public schools.
Public charter schools in our state have continued to demonstrate their value to Georgia’s public school system throughout the pandemic. These unique and innovative schools and their students deserve equitable treatment for the great work they are doing.
Tony Roberts is President and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association