The past year-and-a-half has been eye-opening for parents. When schools closed during the spring of 2020, families were forced to evaluate whether the public schools their children attended were prepared to handle the dramatic shift to online learning and meet individual student needs. Parents also dealt with constantly changing health and safety guidance on everything from virus variants to masking – all while making high-stakes decisions about their children’s physical and emotional health.
In Georgia, these extraordinary circumstances led parents to enroll their children in public charter schools at above-average rates, according to a new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. During the 2020-21 school year, public charter school enrollment grew 7% across the nation, the largest increase in half a decade. In Georgia, it increased 9%. That’s compared to a 2.8% decrease in the state’s traditional public school enrollment.
Most of the enrollment increase occurred in schools authorized by Georgia’s State Charter Schools Commission. The commission gave these schools the flexibility to provide in-person instruction, virtual learning or a hybrid option, based on the needs of the individual school communities. As a result, state charters experienced tremendous growth, increasing enrollment by 16% during the last school year.
The growth occurred not only in brick-and-mortar schools like Ethos Classical, Resurgence Hall and Utopian Academy for the Arts, but also at Georgia Cyber Academy, the state’s largest public school and virtual learning provider. Georgia Cyber Academy was allowed to expand and serve more than 2,600 additional students throughout Georgia because of the unprecedented statewide demand for high-quality virtual learning options.
Enrollment increased by 3% at locally approved charter schools, which are authorized by local boards of education. These schools did a tremendous job serving their families and communities but – unlike state-approved charter schools – most were not allowed to make their own decisions about whether to provide in-person or virtual learning options. Instead, those determinations were made by local school districts. Had they been granted more autonomy to meet the needs of their community, these schools almost certainly would have seen enrollment increase at an even greater rate.
The enrollment gains experienced during the pandemic show the important role these innovative schools play in the state’s overall public school system. As some families turned to homeschooling and private schools, public charter schools gave Georgia parents additional options and kept thousands of students enrolled in public schools. That’s because these tuition-free and independently governed public schools have the unique ability to adapt to the evolving needs of the classroom and make quick, effective changes. Not surprisingly, a recent poll found 65% of Georgia voters support public charter schools, and 56% favor their expansion.
Despite strong bipartisan statewide support, however, local school districts rarely approve charter schools. In the past four years, 181 school districts have collectively approved only four new charter schools. The State Charter Schools Commission, meanwhile, has approved more than 30 in that same period.
Communities deserve better. Local school districts must embrace charter schools as part of the public education formula that allows more Georgia students to reach their full potential. We have learned a great deal about public education since the pandemic began. Perhaps most importantly: Now is the perfect time for dedicated teachers, parents and community leaders to come together and create more of these unique, high-quality public school options. Local school districts should partner in this effort.
Charter support and advocacy organizations like the Georgia Charter Schools Association help ensure the success of these schools. For the past three years, for example, more than 95% of participants enrolled in the association’s Charter School Incubator program won approval to open new charter schools. The program has also brought more leaders of color into Georgia’s educational pipeline.
As the demand for families seeking additional public school options continues to grow, more local school districts and more public education advocates must join the campaign to ensure that Georgia students in every community have the opportunity and ability to attend a high-quality public school.