Opinion: Charter schools work. Georgia needs more

This is National Charter Schools Week. Georgia now has 115 charter schools, according to the state Department of Education.

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This is National Charter Schools Week. Georgia now has 115 charter schools, according to the state Department of Education.

Leader of charter school group says few schools exist for students outside Atlanta

Tony Roberts is president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. In this guest column, he celebrates National Charter Schools Week and calls for more charter options for Georgia students.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under the terms of a charter or contract that extend them flexibility from certain rules in exchange for raising student achievement. According to the state Department of Education, Georgia has 115 charter schools.

By Tony Roberts

As schools across Georgia celebrate National Charter Schools Week, demand for public charter schools has never been stronger.

A poll conducted last fall by Public Opinion Strategies on behalf of the Georgia Charter Schools Association found that 65% of registered voters in Georgia support public charter schools. Unfortunately, the demand for charter schools far exceeds the number of seats available to the many students who want them, and Georgia has more than 14,000 Georgia children on waiting lists.

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Tony Roberts (Courtesy photo)

Tony Roberts (Courtesy photo)

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Tony Roberts (Courtesy photo)

The pandemic laid bare many systemic barriers in public education but perhaps, most importantly, it underscored that a one-size-fits-all public school system does not work. More Georgia communities need access to high-quality public charter schools to ensure that all children, regardless of their ZIP codes, race, ethnicity, income, or abilities, have the opportunity to attend a public school that meets their needs and prepares them for a successful future.

The highest concentration of charter schools in Georgia exists within the city of Atlanta. Yet demand for additional charter school options in this area remains high — primarily because Atlanta’s charter school students, particularly students of color, have been academically successful.

On the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, an analysis of the data shows Black charter school students in the city of Atlanta outperformed peers in traditional schools by 19 points in reading and math in fourth grade and 20 points in both reading and math in eighth grade.

Unlike Atlanta, however, many communities in Georgia have little or no access to public charter schools. This is especially concerning given our state’s overall academic performance record. Georgia ranked 30th out of 50 states in the 2021 Quality Counts report. Georgia earned a C-minus in a K-12 achievement when considering equity and improvement over time. However, in the subcategory of how students were performing today, Georgia received a D-plus.

The report did note an encouraging sign: Georgia’s K-12 academic achievement has improved over time. The addition of more charter school options bolsters and strengthens the state’s entire public education system.

A recent Georgia State University study for the State Charter Schools Commission found start-up charter schools produce more students who are college and career ready. According to the analysis, ninth graders enrolled in charter schools were 7 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school on time, 9 percentage points more likely to attend college and 6 percentage points more likely to receive a college degree or certificate.

The report also showed that Georgia students who attend eighth and ninth grades (successively) at a charter school have higher English, math and reading scores than students who left a charter school after eighth grade to attend traditional public school in ninth grade. Further, student attendance at a charter high school had a long-term impact on individual income — increasing quarterly earnings by more than $530 per graduate.

This study highlights why the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia is working to bring additional public school opportunities to more students in our state. The commission is now giving priority consideration to charter schools seeking to locate outside of greater Atlanta.

This effort to increase public school options for all Georgia’s children is supported by a $4.1 million grant awarded by Gov. Brian Kemp through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. As part of the initiative, 10 new high-quality public charter schools will open or be approved in local communities without a concentration of charter schools by September of 2023. The grant funding will also support the replication and expansion of existing high-quality public charter schools.

As demand for these high-quality schools continues to grow throughout Georgia, our association will collaborate with educators, parents and community members across our state to open and replicate public charter schools in communities that need them the most. Our charter school incubator program has a proven record of success. Over the past four years, it has launched nine new high-quality charter schools, increased educational opportunities for more than 2,000 students, and added more leaders of color into Georgia’s public school pipeline.

Now is the perfect time to focus on the creation of more unique and high-quality public charter schools throughout Georgia. The pandemic has taught us a great deal about public education, but perhaps most importantly, a mix of public school options are needed to meet the demand of families and ensure more Georgia students are able to attend a school that best meets their needs and helps them reach their full potential.