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Charter schools misunderstood

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Georgia’s 71 charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools and are serving a more diverse and economically disadvantaged population, according to the Georgia Department of Education’s most recent Annual Report on Charter Schools.  

The findings, based on 2007 data, correct many of the misperceptions that surround the state’s charter schools and are particularly significant in light of the increased attention charter schools have received from legislative leadership over the past two years.  

In 2007, the General Assembly enacted a law that allows entire districts - not just individual schools - to apply for a charter. Districts promise improved student achievement in exchange for freedom from certain state and local rules. This session, the Legislature is considering the creation of a new statewide authorizing commission that would have the power to establish new charter schools. 

Charter-related initiatives frequently generate controversy. The annual report helps those involved in the discussion differentiate between the facts and the fallacies and provides concrete data that policy-makers should consider when passing on charter policy. Most important, as education reforms generate increasingly rancorous debate, the report provides compelling evidence that charter schools in Georgia deserve serious consideration as a school improvement strategy and option for parents and students.  

In 2007, charter schools in Georgia met state testing goals - or made Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) - at a rate that exceeded traditional public schools. In 2006, fully 85 percent of Georgia charter schools made AYP, compared with 82 percent of traditional public schools. 

By comparison just 42 percent of charter schools made AYP in Florida, the state with the third-highest number of charter schools in the nation. The national average for charter schools was 64 percent, compared with 73 percent of traditional public schools. Georgia’s success rate makes it a leader among chartering states and bolsters the notion that quality chartering, not merely more charter schools, is the key to charter success. 

Indeed, while most reputable national studies of relative charter school performance have yielded mixed results, the performance levels in Georgia are increasingly encouraging. During the 2007 school year, for example, charter high schools in Georgia graduated their students at a rate of 90 percent, compared with an average of

72 percent for public schools generally. This is the highest graduation rate in the history of Georgia’s charter sector and comes at a time when state leaders are redoubling their efforts to improve high school graduation rates.

Much of this success can be attributed to the fact that many charter high schools in Georgia were designed specifically to boost graduation rates. Charter career academies, for example, work in partnership with technical colleges and community colleges to offer a more engaging curriculum and to target students who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks.  

The results are all the more impressive when one considers the student population served by charter schools.

During the 2007 school year, 56 percent of students enrolled in charter schools qualified for free and reduced lunch, compared with 50 percent for students statewide. In addition, Georgia charter schools are more likely to enroll racial minorities: Fully 61 percent of charter school students are racial minorities, compared with the statewide average of 53 percent. And 43 percent of charter school students were African-American, the highest percentage recorded since the first charter school opened in Georgia in 1995.  

These performance levels should be lauded. They should not, however, obscure the reality that some of our schools - charter schools and traditional public schools alike - are not performing at acceptable standards. Moreover, given the relatively small number of charter schools in the state (charter schools enroll approximately 3 percent of public school students statewide), the significance of these trends should not be overstated.

Nevertheless, Georgia charter performance strongly suggests that we should encourage more schools to use curricular flexibility to help improve student learning. Simply put, Georgia’s charter schools are high- performing public schools serving a population that, on average, is more racially diverse and less affluent than Georgia generally.  

In one sense, Georgia charter schools have come of age and are beginning to reach a scale where they can impact many more students. But even as the campaign continues to open more charter schools, Georgians must never lose sight of the ultimate goal: ensuring that every Georgia school is filled with quality teachers successful at improving student performance.  

Written by Andrew Broy, the associate superintendent for policy and charter Schools for the state of Georgia and a former Teach for America corps member.

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