Opinion: Charters met COVID challenges. Will state meet funding challenges?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first charter school law, passed in Minnesota. Today, there are 7,500 charter schools in the United States, enrolling more than 3.3 million students.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first charter school law, passed in Minnesota. Today, there are 7,500 charter schools in the United States, enrolling more than 3.3 million students.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

Leader of Georgia charter school lobbying group calls for ‘funding and resource equity’

Tony Roberts is the president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, which lobbies for greater support of charters and provides training to board members and staff of the independently operated public schools.

To mark National Charter Schools Week, Roberts praises the response of Georgia charter schools to the pandemic and urges the Legislature to increase their funding.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first charter school law, passed in Minnesota. Today, there are 7,500 charter schools in the United States, enrolling more than 3.3 million students.

By Tony Roberts

As we celebrate the second National Charter Schools Week since the pandemic began, it’s important to reflect on the unique role Georgia’s public charter schools have played in serving local communities and ensuring students in our state continue to make academic progress.

Although COVID-19 has been one of most challenging situations that K-12 education has ever faced, public charter schools, which are nimble and allow for quick and effective changes to curriculum, staffing and operation are among the schools uniquely positioned to rapidly pivot to meet the individual needs of students and families during this crisis. The differentiated support that many charter schools provide allows them to effectively serve their unique student populations. Georgia charter schools now enroll more Black students than the state’s traditional public schools (49% versus 37%), fewer White students (35% versus 39%) and nearly the same percentage of students with special needs (12% versus 12.9%).

Tony Roberts is president and CEO of Georgia Charter Schools Association.
Tony Roberts is president and CEO of Georgia Charter Schools Association.

As the COVID-19 crisis intensified last spring, more than 60,000 Georgia charter school students were told they would have to learn remotely for an indefinite amount of time. Public charter schools in our state responded quickly and effectively. They dispersed digital devices and hotspots, shifted their learning models to virtual education and found ways to deliver necessities to students.

Last March, Resurgence Hall Charter School, a state authorized charter school that serves students in the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, rapidly shifted from a face-to-face instructional program to virtual. The school distributed existing laptops to students and purchased additional devices to help students and families. Educators continued to work on campus, and the school maintained its existing curriculum including a focus on small group instruction and guided reading. School administrators ensured the school’s special education students never experienced interruption in services or necessary behavioral interventions.

This school year, Resurgence Hall offered its families the option of allowing students to attend in person or learn virtually. To make face-to-face instruction a reality and keep students safe, the school purchased Personal Protective Equipment, followed CDC guidelines and instituted screening protocols and temperature checks. Today, more than 60% of the student body is learning in a physical classroom.

In Southwest Atlanta, educators like Ebony Dames, a kindergarten and art teacher at SLAM Academy of Atlanta, made sure students attending school face-to-face and those learning virtually simultaneously in her classroom were getting a similar classroom experience. To keep students engaged, Dames placed a camera directly in front of her SMART Board. She also set her laptop in another area of the room so students attending at home could get direct views of the entire classroom and interact with those learning face-to-face.

In DeKalb County, International Community School, a K-5 public charter school and International Baccalaureate school, continued to maintain its strong emphasis on reading. The school created the ICS COVID-19 Relief Fund, which offers interpretation supports or bilingual families, food, and basic needs disbursed through the ICS Community Resource Center, professional development for instructional staff on virtual learning and culturally responsive pedagogy, and hourly wages for frontline ICS workers. The school also provided office hours for families’ questions, offered virtual counseling support for families, and surveyed student needs on a weekly basis.

The RISE Schools, a Georgia charter network located in Fulton, also went above and beyond for students and the local community. When the schools closed for in-person learning last March, the school began offering students and community members under the age of 18 free meals several times a week. The meals were distributed at multiple locations along with household items like bottled water, disinfectant, toilet paper and laundry detergent. The school also sought to meet social and emotional needs at distribution sites. The RISE Schools stayed in contact with families and worked to meet their evolving needs. As a result, the charter network experienced the highest enrollment in its history this school year.

These schools demonstrate the resilience and perseverance of Georgia’s public charter schools during the COVID-19 crisis. Their rapid response, innovation in the classroom and determination to keep students learning, illustrate why charter schools are vital to public education in our state.

I’m grateful Gov. Brian Kemp and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have acknowledged the essential role charter schools play in our public educational system and are continuing to ensure public charter school students are receiving more equitable funding and resources. However, more is needed to achieve true parity.

The majority of 45 charter schools authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission outperform the school districts they serve, yet these charter schools receive approximately $900 less per pupil than the state average funding level. Similarly, locally approved charter schools receive below average funding in almost every school system now operating charters.

While these equity issues cannot be overlooked, the most obvious funding challenge facing charter schools in Georgia is that of facilities. Charter schools lack access to traditional revenue sources like E-SPLOST, a penny sales tax typically used to finance public school capital projects in local districts. As a result, charter schools are forced to allocate significant portions of their annual operating budgets (12% on average) to cover facility costs while traditional schools receive supplemental funding to offset capital expenditures.

The Georgia Charter Schools Association calls on state lawmakers to continue pushing for funding and resource equity for public charter schools—especially as it relates to school facilities. We also charge charter local school districts to be more open and transparent about school funding decisions because charter schools are entitled to their fair share of state, local and federal dollars. Taxpayers deserve to know why some public schools in their district receive less funding than others.

Public charter schools in our state have continued to demonstrate their value to Georgia’s public school system throughout the pandemic. These unique and innovative schools and their students deserve equitable funding.

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