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The Great Charter School Debate

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



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.

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