Is it fair to label Atlanta a charter school desert?

A new study dubs high-poverty communities without school choice options “charter school deserts.’ One such identified area in the study was south Atlanta.



A new study dubs high-poverty communities without school choice options “charter school deserts.’ One such identified area in the study was south Atlanta.

In a guest piece today, two leaders of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, president Michael J. Petrilli and senior vice president for research Amber M. Northern, share the results of a study that looked at high-poverty urban areas underserved by charter schools, of which they are strong proponents.

The study dubbed these areas “charter school deserts.” One of the deserts was south Atlanta.

I can't agree with their conclusion that Atlanta Public Schools has been resistant to charter schools, given school chief Meria Carstarphen's high-profile and controversial recruitment of charter management organizations to take over struggling APS schools, including Thomasville Heights Elementary in south Atlanta.

Last year, Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit with ties to Drew Charter School in east Atlanta, took over Thomasville. APS hired Purpose Built Schools to operate four schools within the Carver Cluster – two elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school.

As the AJC reported last year:

In the past two years, the Atlanta school board voted to close eight school buildings, saving about $8.5 million, and open three new schools. It funneled about $17 million this year alone into 21 of the district's lowest performing schools to fund more tutoring, teacher training, longer school days and other work.

And the district has hired charter school groups — all nonprofits — to run half a dozen neighborhood schools. The charter groups can hire and fire staff, set school budgets, and determine how schools run. They can remove teachers without following the same state-mandated process other Atlanta schools must use. The outsourcing started this year with a single elementary school and will grow over the next three years.

With that background, here is the piece by Northern and Petrilli:

By Amber M. Northern and Michael J. Petrilli

In a country built on the freedom to choose—whether that’s Verizon or AT&T, Hulu or Netflix, iPhone or Android—it’s hard to understand why we don’t give poor families the opportunity to choose their schools, just as middle- and upper-income families can do via private schools or buying into the right neighborhood.

The advent of charter schools in the mid-1990s was supposed to change all of that by leveling the playing field for poor families. These are independently run schools of choice, meaning that students are not assigned to them because of where they live, but because families choose to enroll their child in them.

Many charter schools are specifically opened to serve disadvantaged youngsters in urban areas—and rigorous research has shown that many do a fine job on that count. Yet, until last month, no one had ever determined whether we’ve been overlooking neighborhoods in America that are home to lots of poor children but lack charter schools.

Our organization's new study, "Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options," did just that. The lead author, assistant professor Andrew Saultz of Miami University, defined "charter school deserts" as areas of three or more contiguous census tracts with moderate or high poverty and no charter elementary schools. He found that, of the 42 states that allow charter schools, 39 have at least one desert each.

Yet of all the locales across the country desperate for charter schools, portions of Atlanta are among the areas that need them most, as we were able to determine via an interactive website that accompanies our report. The city has upwards of 40 charter schools, including many in high-poverty neighborhoods. But neighborhoods in south Atlanta, where poverty rates climb as high as 61.2 percent, still lack quality school options.

The young Atlantans who inhabit these communities struggle academically; the traditional public elementary schools in the area report proficiency rates of under 20 percent in both math and English language arts. No doubt their parents want better choices for them. But rather than have access to oases of learning, these youngsters are stuck in a charter school desert. And policies designed to curb charter growth, despite sky-high demand, are likely to blame.

That’s because of politics. Atlanta Public Schools has many strengths as an authorizer, but the current and previous superintendents haven’t viewed charters as part of the district’s overall plan. This has led to denials of numerous applications for new charter schools, including from petitioners with especially strong proposals. This approach discourages able operators from applying. As does the state’s charter school funding formula, which despite recent improvements still leaves charters with significantly less per-pupil dollars than the average traditional public school in Atlanta.

There is, nevertheless, hope. The state should increase charter funding further so they’re on equal financial ground with their traditional counterparts. And district leaders should realize that the current approach isn’t working and open their minds to public charter schools as viable solutions. Only then will the demands of parents be met. Only then will deeply disadvantaged children finally be able to attend the high-quality schools they want and deserve.