How much should states consider parental satisfaction when considering the fate of underperforming charter schools?

Parent: ‘Failing’ charter school is not failing my kids

Parent Beth McCamy wants to change the state’s definition of a failing charter school.

Her two children attend Georgia Cyber Academy, which, with an enrollment of more than 14,000, is the state’s largest K-12 school. As with most online schools, Georgia Cyber Academy is struggling with the academic goals in its performance contract. In 2017, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement gave the school a grade of D.

Nationwide, online schools are among the worst performing charters, raising questions about whether virtual learning works for many students.

McCamy says it works for her kids, and she wants the choice to keep her kids there.

Georgia Connections AcademyGeorgia Cyber Academy and Graduation Achievement Charter High School were among low-performing state-authorized charter schools called in for performance reviews by the State Charter Schools Commission last year and told to improve or risk loss of their operating charters.

With the expectation the commission would not approve its renewal, Graduation Achievement withdrew its application and plans to close in June. The closing affects about 2,000 students. 

Proponents of Graduation Achievement Charter High School contend the state used unrealistic benchmarks in setting performance goals for its at-risk population, but the deputy director of the State Charter Schools Commission disputed that contention in a guest column here two weeks ago.

“The promise of raising student achievement in return for additional freedom is known as the ‘charter bargain,’” wrote Gregg Stevens. “In accordance with our mission, the State Charter Schools Commission 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.”

But McCamy counters the failing label considers overall test scores and ignores the students who aren’t failing and the parents who value the school. 

This is an interesting argument, and one increasingly surfacing in the national charter school debate. How much should states consider parental satisfaction in deciding the fate of charter schools that overall post dismal academic performance?

With that background, here is McCamy’s column:

By Beth McCamy 

Here is what is so extremely frustrating about the “accountability” discussion about charter schools: Too many people assume that if a school is deemed by the state to be “failing” then all of its students must be failing. 

(See the recent Get Schooled blog, “Failing school of choice is not a real choice.”

But that’s not true. And I know. I’m a parent of two successful students enrolled in a public virtual charter school. My children are doing great in this school. We love it. It’s an excellent choice and important part of our lives. The problem? The state has characterized it as “failing” based solely on summative state standardized test score results, putting my children’s school – and my choice – at risk of closure. 

How does this happen? Well, it basically comes down to trust. Too many people in power trust standardized tests scores and not parents or teachers. They believe test scores – not of individual students, but of the aggregate – should drive decision-making on what is best for every kid. 

Parents’ views? Teachers’ views? Those are secondary, if they even matter at all. In their belief, if the school’s overall grade is low, then every student must be failing, and no student should be allowed to attend that school, regardless of the wishes of the parents or needs of children.  

In his op-ed in this space earlier this month, Gregg Stevens, chair of the State Charter Schools Commission, said as much in defending the closure of Graduation Achievement High School, a virtual school that served 2,100 at-risk students and had successfully graduated over 900 students. Mr. Stevens said, “It is inexcusable to allow a student to languish a failing school for years.” 

But what about students who were succeeding in that school? Why do they get punished?  

Of course, nobody wants students to languish in schools that aren’t working for them, but that’s the reason Georgia created charter schools. It’s the whole point of school choice. Parents, not bureaucrats, can freely make decision to leave a charter school if they believe it is not working for them.  

Closing public schools of choice comes with severe repercussions for families, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the commission. While Mr. Stevens acknowledges that “it is never ideal to disrupt a student’s education environment,” he never grapples with the real-world consequences.  

Where do these kids go? What are their alternatives? For some students, it may be their only option, but those questions don’t concern the commission.

It’s as if Mr. Stevens and the State Charter Schools Commission – a body, ironically, created by the Georgia Legislature to protect and promote parent choice – are okay overruling parent choice and forcing kids back into schools they fled (or, in the case for many Graduation Academy kids, relegating them to dropouts.)  

My children are succeeding in a virtual school that is at risk for closure. Hundreds were succeeding in the now-closed Graduation Achievement Charter High School. Many more were succeeding in Georgia Connections Academy before the commission forced the elementary school to close.  

Something crazy happened after so many parents like me voted for Amendment 1 in 2012 – a proposal that protected charter schools and gave legal status to the State Charter Schools Commission. Many others poured the time and treasure to get it passed on behalf of parent choice. But something crazy happened in the six years after passage -- charter school leaders fell in love with bureaucrat choice and lost the faith in parent choice.  

That’s not “accountability.” It’s elitism.

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...