For all the problems Atlanta Public Schools have had, charter schools are something the district has done right, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen told a conference this year in New Orleans, the epicenter of the modern charter school movement.
Atlanta has the highest proportion of independent charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, of any large Georgia district.
In fact, Atlanta is one of the top ten cities nationally for "school choice"—a category that includes charter schools as well as private-school vouchers and public magnet schools— according to a new ranking from the Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that advocates for school choice.
That puts Atlanta in the same category as cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, where traditional public schools were supplanted by a district of charter schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — which approves and monitors charter schools — recently ranked Georgia's oversight of charters among the top 20 states nationally.
“There’s been an explosion of school choice in Atlanta and some of the building blocks of a high quality school choice system are there,” Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli said.
Calling Atlanta one of the most “choice-friendly” cities isn’t much of a compliment, said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers.
“That’s like saying Chicago is the most murder friendly-city in the nation,” she said.
Turner said charter schools haven’t delivered on their promise to be incubators of change. They can attract the kinds of parents more likely to be involved in their children’s schools, siphoning resources away from traditional public schools she said. And they can lack oversight, she said.
Last month, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on nearly $1 million in public funds missing from a group of Atlanta-area charter schools; police suspect the schools' founder may have had something to do with the missing money.
Mitch White’s daughter is a kindergartener at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, founded in 2001 by a group of Grant Park residents.
“One of the great things about living in Atlanta is that there are options,” said White, the ANCS board chair.
White’s daughter attended pre-k at an Atlanta Public Schools elementary school, but ANCS’s approach to learning — which focuses more on projects and less on homework and grades — appealed to White and his wife. Still, White says their daughter will likely end up at the local public high school, Jackson High School.
“I don’t view it as, ‘Oh, I’m a charter school parent,’” he said.
Atlanta’s charter schools could grow in the coming years.
Atlanta received approval this year to become a charter system. That means elected boards at individual schools will have more say over school budgeting and operations.
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who came to Atlanta last year, has described her approach to helping traditional public schools and charter schools work together as "a lot of horsewhipping and cheerleading put together."
"You have to say as a leader 'I expect you to include our charter schools in everything you do'," she told attendees at a June conference on New Orleans' charter school district. "When you work together, you get better outcomes for kids."
In past years, charter schools faced some challenges in working with the school district, said Dean Leeper, founder of two Atlanta charter schools, the Kindezi Schools.
“A lot of those challenges have been melting away under Dr. Carstarphen’s leadership,” he said.
The district now offers charters a menu of services for purchase — like crossing guards and security services. District officials have mentioned letting buildings run by charters possibly benefit from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funding too, he said.
And at the state level, a constitutional amendment that will go before voters next year would allow the state to take control of low-performing schools and turn them over to charter school operators, among other options. Twenty-six Atlanta schools would be eligible for state takeover if that Opportunity School District amendment were in effect today.
In the face of criticism from some parents, Carstarphen has been adamant that she could recommend bringing in charter school groups to run some Atlanta schools in advance of any state takeover — an attempt to spur long-needed improvements.
The list of charter schools that might be interested is shorter than one might expect, she told parents this fall.
“If they come, they must be non-profit and they must take any kid from that neighborhood,” she said. “Let’s see how many sign up for that.”