Opinion: Georgia charter schools proved skeptics wrong

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Tony Roberts is president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. In this guest column, Roberts uses the occasion of National Charter Schools Week to recall the doubts that charters faced when they began to expand in Georgia and the growing appeal of the schools to parents.

By Tony Roberts

This marks the 10th National Charter Schools Week since Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment empowering the state Legislature to appoint a commission that could approve and fund charter schools.

In 2012, opponents to the amendment claimed it would usurp local control, bring large numbers of private for-profit companies to operate charter schools in Georgia, and the state commission would serve as a “rubber stamp” for charter petitions.

However, the sky has not fallen in the last decade. Instead, public charter schools have made a meaningful difference in the lives of tens of thousands of Georgia children, particularly for students of color, who comprise 70% of charter school students in Georgia.

Charter school growth has been slow and steady. Georgia now has 96 charter schools, which represent only 4% of the total number of public schools. More than half of these schools were approved by local school boards (many before the amendment’s passage), and the remainder have been authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission. Today, the commission operates 43 schools throughout the state.

This small but mighty group of schools has strengthened Georgia’s overall public school system by giving students from all backgrounds the opportunity to attend a school that meets their individual needs and prepares them for a successful future.

Last spring, all three charter high schools in Atlanta Public Schools achieved graduation rates of 92% or higher. Statewide, Georgia’s public charter school students outperformed students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math by at least 8 points in fourth grade and 4 points in the eighth grade. The results were especially striking for Black students, who outperformed their traditional school peers by scoring at least 22 points higher in reading and math in fourth grade and 10 points higher in reading and math in eighth grade.

A 2021 Georgia State University study commissioned by the State Charter Schools Commission found that startup charter schools produce more students who are college- and career-ready than traditional schools. The study compares startup charter school students with those who previously attended a startup charter school but switched to a traditional public school in ninth grade. According to the analysis, ninth graders enrolled in charter schools were 7% more likely to graduate from high school on time than their peers in traditional public schools, 9% more likely to attend college and 6% more likely to receive a college degree or certificate.

Public charter schools remain popular with Georgia families, particularly after the pandemic, which exposed that a one-size-fits-all public school system does not work for every student and family. A recent poll conducted on behalf of the Georgia Charter Schools Association found that 72% of registered voters in the city of Atlanta hold favorable views of public charter schools. Support was even higher among parents of school-aged children, with 83% expressing positive opinions. Statewide, another survey showed that more than 6 out of 10 registered voters approve of charter schools.

One reason that Georgia’s public charter schools enjoy widespread support is that the vast majority are “homegrown” — founded and operated by local community members who understand the unique educational needs of the students in the area.

Only seven of Georgia’s charter schools have contracted with for-profit management companies. A 2019 study by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers found Georgia had the highest proportion of “freestanding” charter approvals of the 20 states examined for the report. Freestanding approvals are those that are unaffiliated with a charter school network, a nonprofit Charter Management Organization or a for-profit Education Management Organization.

Despite the popularity of charter schools, more than 14,000 Georgia students remain on waitlists. At the Georgia Charter Schools Association, we are proud to be a part of the Georgia Strategic Charter School Growth Initiative to help meet the demand for charter schools in local communities.

The initiative is a partnership between the State Charter Schools Foundation of Georgia, the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia and the Georgia Charter Schools Association. Our Incubator program provides technical assistance to new and expanding charter schools, and the initiative has created a new website with a locator that includes all charter schools in Georgia and provides information to those who want to start charter schools in their local communities.

Still, more is needed to ensure that all Georgia students can attend high-quality schools in their local communities. In recent years, the number of charter schools authorized by local school districts has decreased, and many districts are simply not supportive of approving new charter schools to benefit their communities. We urge these districts to give families more educational options — not less.

In the decade since the amendment’s passage, public charter schools have only strengthened Georgia’s educational landscape by raising academic achievement, meeting the individual needs of students and preparing students for college and career opportunities.

Public charter schools enjoy broad bipartisan support and allow parents to choose the environment where their children will learn best. It’s time for school districts across the state to embrace charter schools as partners rather than opponents so as to ensure every child has access to a high-quality public education.