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The Great Charter School Debate

The future of Georgia's charter school movement depends on this constitutional amendment.

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Every student participates.

About a dozen hands race to the sky as Jacob Cole, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County, asks his all-female class a question about the Holocaust. Every student must hold up either one or two fingers — one if they know the answer, two if they don't. Cole, who instructs with an assertive and detailed approach, receives his uniform-wearing students' undivided attention throughout the lesson.

Principal Katherine Kelbaugh's students also have a dress code but learn in an entirely different fashion. Through hands-on group projects, the teachers at the Museum School of Avondale Estates bolster their students' classroom studies with everything from dioramas depicting historic freedom fighters to engaging bi-weekly field trips.

Ivy Prep and the Museum School are charter schools, a type of public school that provides an alternative learning environment and is exempt from local school district policies. Kelbaugh oversees the elementary school with more autonomy than your average public school principal, allowing her to make decisions based on what she thinks works best for the students.

"[Instead of] a curriculum that was chosen for 100,000 students across a county, we're able to look at the needs of our students within our building and make those decisions," Kelbaugh says.

Ivy Prep and the Museum School exist because of a now-defunct controversial state commission created to give proposed charter schools an appeals process if rejected by local districts, be it for anything from financial concerns to petty politics. Formed in 2008, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the commission violated the state Constitution, saying that only local school boards could authorize charter schools.

On Nov. 6, Georgia voters will decide whether that commission should be brought back to life to provide parents and nonprofits another way to create an alternative to traditional public education. Currently, only local school districts have the power to authorize or deny charter applications. If rejected, a charter request may be appealed through the State Board of Education. But if the referendum is passed, it would resurrect the state commission and its authority to bypass local school boards and authorize charter schools.

Both sides of the great charter school debate share a common goal: improving the quality of Georgia's public education system. On Election Day, voters will decide what role the state should play in the process. While the amendment itself seems straightforward, the discussion around the issue is anything but.

The ballot measure has divided political parties, prompted huge advocacy and opposition campaigns, sparked lawsuits intimidating local school officials from speaking out against the measure, and called into question the entire charter school system. Each side has employed scare tactics to sway voters, and, with less than a week left, the race remains in a dead heat. What's more, the ballot measure's wording is entirely misleading, making it difficult for Georgians to decipher what the amendment would actually do. A tiny, five-person commission seems like it wouldn't have much of an impact on citizens, but that couldn't be further from the truth.

Charter schools operate under the terms of a contract agreed upon with an "authorizer," usually a local school board, which grants the right to operate a school. Charter schools are public schools and, like traditional public schools, receive public funding and are free to attend. They require fair and open enrollment, must teach a secular curriculum, and serve all student populations. In these regards, charter and traditional public schools function identically to one another.

Charter schools have greater flexibility concerning state and local rules, because they can create their own curriculums, teaching methods, and parental involvement requirements. But such freedom comes with greater accountability, and local and state boards hold charter schools to stricter academic and financial performance standards than traditional public schools. If a charter school fails to meet the terms stated in its contract, it runs the risk of having its charter revoked and getting shut down. Fulton Science Academy Middle School, for example, was forced to become a private school after local and state officials declined to renew its charter for poor financial management earlier this year.

How well charter schools have actually performed is a heated topic, and one that's been widely debated in recent weeks. The academic data point both ways. Compared to traditional public schools in Georgia in 2010-2011, the Peach State's charter schools scored 3 percent worse on their statewide Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP, a national measurement of public school performance based on test scores, attendance, and other criteria. But when the scores are looked at over a five-year period, it's essentially a zero-sum game between the two. Also, charter schools tend to fare slightly better on their AYP scores when compared to traditional public schools in the same district.

TAKING A STANCE: Things get intense at Atlanta Press Club’s Charter School Amendment Forum at Georgia Public Broadcasting on October 21, 2012. From left to right: Valerie Wilson (President of Georgia School Board Association), Alvin Wilbanks (Gwinnett County School Board CEO and Superintendent), Kelly McCutchen (Founder of Tech High Charter School), Jan Jones (Speaker Pro Tempore at the Georgia House of Representatives) - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • TAKING A STANCE: Things get intense at Atlanta Press Club’s Charter School Amendment Forum at Georgia Public Broadcasting on October 21, 2012. From left to right: Valerie Wilson (President of Georgia School Board Association), Alvin Wilbanks (Gwinnett County School Board CEO and Superintendent), Kelly McCutchen (Founder of Tech High Charter School), Jan Jones (Speaker Pro Tempore at the Georgia House of Representatives)

The rise of charter schools has sparked a fledging industry that generates billions of dollars nationwide each year. Georgia laws require charter schools to be nonprofit public schools, but they're allowed to hire for-profit management companies to run either all or part of the school. Some amendment opponents think that reviving the commission could open the door for these companies, many of which are based outside the state, to make a potential killing.

"Amendment one is not about charter schools. It's about who's funding charter schools," Gwinnett County Schools CEO and Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks said during a late October Atlanta Press Club debate.

Public school teachers and administrators, many of whom have watched their budgets get slashed over the past decade, make up some of the amendment's most outspoken detractors. They argue that authorizing new charters rather than increasing the budgets of already existing public schools would continue to spread dwindling state education funds even thinner.

"In an era when we have so many school systems with fewer than 180 days, teacher furloughs, and schools with overcrowded classrooms, we're looking at more of that if amendment one passes," says Jane Langley, a spokesperson for Vote Smart Georgia, an advocacy group fighting the amendment.

Longtime City Schools of Decatur board member Valerie Wilson concurred with that position during last month's Atlanta Press Club debate, saying, "existing public schools have never been adequately funded."

Georgia's foray into charter schools began in 1995, when Marietta's Addison Elementary School took advantage of a law passed by the General Assembly two years earlier, allowing traditional public schools to convert into charter schools. The Charter Schools Act of 1998 followed, providing the opportunity for new start-up charter schools to be established.

While school districts in metro Atlanta have, for the most part, approved charters based on their applications' strength, that hasn't necessarily been the case statewide. For applicants in many districts, it was almost impossible to create alternative education options for a number of reasons ranging from philosophical opposition to a simple lack of awareness.

In 2008, the Republican-controlled Legislature formed the Georgia Charter Schools Commission to fix this rejection dilemma and create "state-chartered special schools." The state commission also consulted with potential charter applicants and promoted charter schools where they didn't exist.

Last year, the Georgia Supreme Court deemed the commission unconstitutional in a slim 4-3 decision. The ruling dissolved the group and returned primary control of authorizing charter schools back to local boards. As a result, roughly one-tenth of Georgia's charter schools, including the Museum School and Ivy Preparatory Academy, saw their commission-approved contracts invalidated. In the wake of the court's decision, the schools had to scramble and reapply for charters from their local boards.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers returned to the Gold Dome and passed legislation that would allow voters to turn the clock back to 2008.

Phil Andrews, a longtime charter schools consultant and former executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, thinks the commission is essential to the charter school process.

"If your local school systems are the only entity that can approve charter schools ... [then they] have a monopoly if there's not a separate statewide entity," he says.

Those rallying against the amendment argue that the reinstatement of a state-level charter authorizer bypasses local board members, the elected officials selected by the people living in their districts. Instead, the commission would be filled with members handpicked by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House. Gov. Nathan Deal is one of the amendment's staunchest supporters.

"It's important to emphasize that this is not about [what] charter schools are or whether they perform or don't," State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said during an anti-amendment speech held at the Gold Dome last month. "It's about whether local schools will have their power usurped [or] taken away from them."

Amendment opponents, including Langley, think that the commission "adds another layer of bureaucracy" that's simply not needed. Verdallia Turner, President of the Georgia Federation of Teachers, agrees.

"Local boards of education don't frivolously grant charters and they shouldn't," she says. "If those applications are turned down, you can go through the Department of Education."

Some advocates say they need alternatives because traditional public schools don't always meet a student's educational needs. According to the Georgia Department of Education, only one-third of state's public county school districts have charter schools. Many proponents, including Museum School board member Brian Deutsch, prefer that students have "as many choices as possible." Right now, it's difficult, some say almost impossible, for applicants in many districts to create charter schools.

"Sometimes local control doesn't work," Families for Better Public Schools spokesman Bert Brantley says. "And so as much as I believe in that, I think there should also be a check and an appeal if possible."

Choice is one of the primary reasons that charter schools have become so popular among supporters. It's not hard to see why people want that option either, considering that Georgia's high school graduation rates rank 47th in the nation. Likewise, it's tough to determine if those numbers are the by-product of underperforming traditional public schools or reflect a failure to adequately support what many would call a broken education system.

Is the charter school movement a step in the right direction toward fixing the state's education problems? Georgians will decide on Election Day.

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