Today’s Courier Herald Column:
School systems in two of Georgia’s largest counties have rejected applications to extend charters for two successful charter schools. Ivy Prep in Gwinnett County and Fulton Science Academy Middle School in Fulton County have both faced local school boards which refuse an extension of their charters, despite their demonstrated records of success. The Fulton school was one of only nine statewide to be named a 2011 “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence”, whereas the Gwinnett school demonstrates CRCT scores above the averages found in the same student population from the county system.
Other charter schools have faced similar obstacles in organizing or maintaining charters in Coweta and Cherokee Counties, also in suburban metro Atlanta. The location of these schools makes the struggle to obtain and maintain charters more perplexing and intriguing. Many of these systems are far from troubled, with many featuring schools that rank among the best in the state. Yet they are also home to the region that is packed with suburban Atlanta Republicans who now dominate both the state’s population and the state legislature.
School choice has long been a political talking point of Republicans, usually in the form of vouchers. Charter schools have a much broader political constituency, as tax dollars are still maintained within the confines of a public system and not diverted to private schools. Yet charter schools also create an inherent conflict within the Republican base, as Republicans tend to claim as a core belief the principle of local control. Charter schools, at least on the surface, appear to present a conflict with this.
Opponents of state charter schools claim that the state is usurping the control of the elected school boards by issuing charters at the state level and usurping the local leader’s authority on spending and oversight. Before the Georgia Supreme Court ruled Georgia’s state charter school law unconstitutional, a Georgia state charter school could receive local funds for a student.
Under current law, students at state charter schools receive a per student contribution equal to the amount their county school board would receive from the state, but none of the local funding. A constitutional amendment would be required to mandate local school boards appropriate local funding to charter schools within their jurisdiction. Constitutional amendments can only appear on general election ballots every two years, so the opportunity to change this in the near future lies within this session of Georgia’s General Assembly. As of now, it is unclear if the political will to push this issue forward and to the voters of Georgia.
While the counties which seem interested in thwarting charter schools have overall good records of success, there are still schools that perform better than others. School lines are often drawn with income levels in mind, with some students trapped in underperforming schools because of unfortunate geography within a particular county.
Local school boards maintain a constitutional monopoly with regard to public schools, and this is where the local control principle is recognized. Republicans also maintain competition as a core value, as well as understand that the individual is more local than a county wide school board – especially in a county approaching a population of one million residents.
Charter schools require academic and financial standards be met, but otherwise allow for great flexibility in teaching methods. They also generally require some level of parental involvement, ensuring that the student body comes from households that are motivated for student achievement. As such, they are usually able to produce academic results at or above the general population they serve at a cost below the local per-pupil average. They also inject some level of competition to an otherwise local school monopoly.
This week represents national school choice week across the country, and the Georgia legislature is likely to hear from advocates of various forms of school choice. What Georgian’s should hear back is that there will be an amendment on the November ballot to restore local funding to state charter schools. “Should”. But this is not likely to happen unless your legislators hear from you.
Georgia needs to support school choice, and Georgia’s charter schools have demonstrated they can perform as a good, locally controlled solution to Georgia’s educational woes. Call your legislator this week and let them know you want charter schools fully supported by a constitutional amendment this year.