Gregg Stevens is the deputy director and general counsel of the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia. In this piece, he explains the process by which the commission approves and denies charter schools in Georgia.
This is a timely piece as the decision by the state’s first online charter high school to shut down in June has prompted discussion of whether the commission’s performance standards are unrealistic.
Graduation Achievement Academy was facing losing its charter from the State Charter Schools Commission on the basis of its chronic inability to meet its academic benchmarks. About 2,100 students attend the statewide virtual school, with 271 seniors eligible to graduate in June.
Advocates for the school argue standards were too high for a charter that embraced students failing or struggling in their home high schools.
The charter school had posted several years of poor performance based on state metrics, jeopardizing its state-authorized charter. School leaders have said it is difficult to meet state expectations because it serves a different population of students and accepts students regardless of academic or disciplinary history.
But Stevens counters the State Charter Schools Commission considers the characteristics and profiles of the students in reviewing school performance, writing: “Because all schools, including state charter schools, serve diverse student bodies with unique missions and visions, the SCSC uses a variety of academic measures to assess student learning. Many of these measures intentionally account for a school’s unique student population.”
By Gregg Stevens
Following Georgia’s legislative session and state charter school renewal decisions, much has been said about charter schools in public debate lately -- some statements are true and others are not. As deputy director of the State Charter Schools Commission, I would like to clarify some misconceptions about charter schools, specifically how charter schools operate and the role of a charter school authorizer.
The SCSC is Georgia’s independent, statewide charter school authorizer. The SCSC authorizes charter schools across the state that were not approved by their local school districts or schools that serve students from multiple school districts. Charter schools are public schools that operate on performance contracts and receive increased flexibility (the ability to waive some laws and rules) in exchange for increased accountability (higher academic performance).
The promise of raising student achievement in return for additional freedom is known as the “charter bargain.” Because of this agreement, charter schools earn their right to exist one charter term at a time and only if they meet the performance requirements outlined in their charter contracts. The primary duty of the SCSC as an authorizer is to uphold the charter bargain by providing flexibility to schools and holding them accountable for meeting their performance goals.
The SCSC establishes rigorous performance standards for school academics, finance and operations, outlined in the SCSC Comprehensive Performance Framework. These performance expectations align with national best practices, Georgia’s educational goals and the SCSC’s organizational mission: to improve public education by authorizing high-quality charter schools that provide students with a better educational opportunity than they would otherwise receive in traditional district schools. In other words, SCSC schools, known as “state charter schools,” are expected to outperform the traditional schools in their attendance zone.
While state charter schools are held to a higher standard than their traditional school counterparts, state charter schools must also operate as independent school systems. This means that state charter schools must offer the same services as traditional schools while generally receiving less funding. (State charter schools do not receive any local tax revenue, but if House Bill 787 is signed by the governor, the state funding they receive will increase to either the statewide average of local funding or the average of the school districts in the state charter school’s attendance zone – whichever is less.)
A troubling misconception stated in many policy debates is that charter schools aren’t required to serve the same types of students as traditional public schools. This is fundamentally untrue. Open enrollment laws require that charter schools provide an equal opportunity for admission to all students within their attendance zones. Additionally, if more students wish to attend the school than space permits, the school must randomly select applicants through a lottery system to ensure that each student has an equal chance of attending the school.
State charter schools serve all different types of students from every geographic region of the state and through a variety of educational models. The SCSC has authorized language-immersion schools, single-gender schools, dropout recovery schools and virtual schools to name a few. Contrary to what has been publicly stated, many state charter schools serve higher than average populations of economically disadvantaged students, English learners and students with disabilities.
We take open enrollment laws very seriously at the SCSC and encourage all authorizers to closely monitor charter schools’ enrollment practices. Any state charter school that does not adhere to open enrollment requirements or attempts to select certain types of students will be forced to correct its practices. If a state charter school repeatedly violates its duty to serve all students, the SCSC will terminate the school’s charter contract and close the school.
Additionally, when a charter school fails to meet academic standards throughout its charter term, as happened recently with one state charter school, quality charter authorizers require the charter school to close. While this will require the students and staff at the school to transition to another educational option, traditional schools with poor academic track records may remain open indefinitely. It is never ideal to disrupt a student’s educational environment, but it is inexcusable to allow a student to languish in a failing school for years.
Because all schools, including state charter schools, serve diverse student bodies with unique missions and visions, the SCSC uses a variety of academic measures to assess student learning. Many of these measures intentionally account for a school’s unique student population. Schools can meet SCSC standards through academic achievement and student growth measures from the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI—the state’s official academic accountability system adopted by state Board of Education) or on alternative accountability measures like the SCSC’s Value-Add Analysis and Georgia Department of Education’s Beating the Odds Analysis.
In other words, state charter schools can meet academic performance standards by showing that their students outperformed their peers or had more academic growth than students in traditional public schools.
Schools not meeting academic standards sometimes assert the standards are not accurate, are unfair or fail to account for the “types” of students that the school serves. While this complaint isn’t unique to Georgia or the SCSC, what is unique is Georgia’s inclusion of academic performance measures that give schools credit for serving challenging student populations.
The SCSC’s Value-Add Analysis, regarded as a best practice for authorizers, controls for student characteristics that statistically impact academic performance. Student traits like homelessness, being overage for his or her grade and being previously expelled are some of the many factors that have an effect on student achievement and are accounted for by the SCSC.
Additionally, the Georgia Department of Education’s Beating the Odd’s analysis examines a school’s characteristics and assesses whether the school outperformed its projected achievement based on those characteristics. As a result, the SCSC evaluation system allows the SCSC to account for exactly the types of students that that a school serves when we determine if the charter school is helping students grow academically.
These objective, data-driven measures of success are what the SCSC uses to track academic performance over the course of a school’s charter term and to ultimately decide whether to recommend the school for another charter term. Despite being held to a higher standard than their traditional school peers while receiving less funding, many state charter schools are meeting standards.
The SCSC approved new charter contracts for eight of the nine state charter schools with contracts expiring at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. While it is never an easy decision to recommend non-renewal of a school, the role of the authorizer is to uphold the terms of the charter contract. Unlike low-performing traditional schools that continue to operate, low-performing charter schools are supposed to close.
In accordance with our mission, the SCSC maintains high expectations for our schools because they exist to serve students – all students- as schools of choice. A failing school of choice is not a real choice for Georgia’s students.