• Commentary

Changes Coming to Georgia Charter Schools

Four new state-authorized charter schools will open in Georgia this fall, and two more have won approval to open next year.

Amana Academy West Atlanta, Dekalb Brilliance Academy, Destinations Career Academy, and Resurgence Hall Middle Academy open their doors for the 2022-2023 school year. They each offer unique educational products, employing innovative learning strategies such as professional skills development, entrepreneurial-based learning, early focuses on STEM and design thinking, and more.

Other than Destinations, which is a full-time online school, these schools and the two approved for next year (The Anchor School and Sankofa Montessori) all operate in metro Atlanta. While the need for charter schools in the Atlanta area is apparent—as indicated by the concentration of applications there, if nothing else—recent changes to the State Charter Schools Commission’s guidelines are likely to shift the focus of charter school establishment elsewhere.

The SCSC will now give “priority consideration” to charter applications that fall outside of “high-saturation” areas, which are defined by the Commission as “geographic location[s] containing more than one charter school that serves grades K-5 or 6-8 within a three-mile radius.”

In practice, this means that charter proposals within high-saturation areas are now subject to greater scrutiny including “rigorous enrollment standards,” and applicants will be responsible for additional due diligence. Applicants must provide enrollment and waitlist data on any existing charter school within a three-mile radius as well as “demonstrate a high likelihood that, if approved, the school can meet its projected enrollment targets.” These guidelines were issued last fall, so 2022 was the first cycle of charter school applications required to adhere to the new standards.

The additional hurdles address the high saturation of charter applications in the Atlanta area. Charter schools have enrollment requirements in their contracts that can be jeopardized by too many schools sharing too little space, even if they are performing well. Given this, the Commission is shifting to address demand in other areas that have previously been secondary to Atlanta.

Buzz Brockway, chairman of the Charter Schools Commission, recognizes that other areas need charter schools. “We want continued applications in Atlanta. We are not going to turn anyone away, but we want schools to consider high saturation,” said Brockway. “With new guidelines and new grants, we hope to incubate and replicate schools with a focus on areas where there aren’t any schools, and attract schools throughout the state.”

Although the Commission’s guidelines erect barriers to an area of high demand, they stand to influence a more stable landscape of charter schools in Atlanta and greater opportunity elsewhere in the state. 

Speaking of elsewhere, this shifting of focus affords Georgia the opportunity to address areas of need in other parts of the state. The Commission specifically mentioned Athens-Clarke County, Macon-Bibb County, Albany-Dougherty County, Augusta-Richmond County, and Columbus as locations “subject to priority consideration” for 2022 charter applications. There is certainly no lack of need in those areas.

Of the 298 Georgia schools that ranked in the bottom quartile of both 2018 and 2019’s College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) reports, 69 (about 23%) were located in those five “priority” systems. (It should be noted that the state has not released a new report since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but that’s a story for another time.) In other terms, of the 181 school systems in Georgia, five of them house almost a quarter of the back-to-back offenders—and those do not include any systems in Atlanta.

This trend is troubling to say the least, and it demonstrates a need for options in all corners of the state, not just its capital. The ideal outcome of this guideline change is twofold: Atlanta charter schools would be put in a less volatile environment and less likely to struggle for adequate enrollment and survival, and other areas that traditionally take a backseat to Atlanta would be given more attention as priority areas with more lenient requirements for applications.

With the four charter schools starting classes this year and the two approved for next year all operating in or around Atlanta, it might be an appropriate time to shake up the landscape. Charter schools are naturally innovative and necessarily competitive, a stark contrast to the stagnation that characterizes failing districts. Addressing need in Atlanta is no more urgent than in places like Richmond County, where a whopping 26 schools were repeat offenders in the bottom quartile of the CCRPI. If these new guidelines bring about a rise in charter applications and approvals in priority districts and curb enrollment problems in Atlanta without negatively affecting charters that demonstrate success, Georgia’s charter schools will be in a much better position to provide equitable, quality education to its neediest K-12 students, no matter where they live.