Charter schools seen as education reform, despite some failures

Georgia charter schools failing in 2014*

Atlanta Heights Charter School, Atlanta

Intown Charter Academy, Atlanta

Ivy Preparatory Young Men’s Leadership Academy, DeKalb County

DeKalb Preparatory Academy, DeKalb County

Destiny Achievers Academy of Excellence, DeKalb County

Gateway to College Academy, DeKalb County

Smokerise Elementary, DeKalb County

Odyssey School, Coweta County

Lanier Career Academy, Hall County

Hapeville Charter Middle School, Fulton County

Georgia Connections Academy, statewide

Provost Academy of Georgia, statewide

Mountain Education Center High School, statewide

Savannah Classical Academy, Chatham County

Berrien Academy Performance Learning Center, Berrien County

Bishop Hall Charter School, Thomas County

Cairo High School, Grady County

Jenkins-White Elementary School, Richmond County

*AJC research based on Department of Education records

From the start, The Intown Charter Academy in Atlanta proved a failure. It didn’t meet federal performance guidelines in 2011, its first year, and it remained a disappointment, with unacceptable scores on an annual state measure.

Despite the lackluster performance, it was allowed to continue, serving more than 300 students by the time it was shuttered this spring.

The promise of charter schools was that they would outperform traditional pubic schools or close. Schools like Intown do eventually get shuttered, but it can take half a decade, with students spending nearly half their school years in a sub-par environment.

Georgia leaders are pushing to expand the number of charter schools, saying they will boost sagging educational performance, despite a track record that suggests otherwise.

Some charter schools are, indeed, beacons of success, excelling with students from low-income households or filling a niche with special programs.

However, some studies, including one by the state entity that authorizes charter schools, suggests charters are about on par with traditional public schools. The Georgia State Charter Schools Commission recently issued a report that found that 62 percent of the charter schools it authorized did no better than comparison school districts on the state's new report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI. Since charter schools are often accused of skimming the better-performing students from traditional schools, the commission also measured performance using a so-called "value-added method" that adjusted for student characteristics "so that schools can be equitably compared."

Under that measure, no state charters outperformed their comparison districts in “relevant” grade levels. Only 8 percent performed at the same level as their districts, the report said.

And at least 18 state and local charter schools, more than one in six in Georgia, received a failing score on the 2014 CCRPI, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s about the same as the failure rate for all public schools. (Failure means a score less than 60 on the 100-point measure, according to a new proposal that would allow the state to take over bad schools.)

“The charter school movement still has not lived up to its promise,” said Tim Callahan, a former spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. He was interviewed in June before he retired from the teachers advocacy group, which sees the charter school movement as a threat to the financial stability of traditional schools.

Charter schools get taxpayer dollars though they are privately operated, sometimes by for-profit companies. They have more freedom than traditional public schools, and in exchange must show academic gains. Failure can mean closure, but state and local officials tend to wait until charter school contracts have run their course — usually five years — before shutting them down.

“Closure during the life of the charter is typically reserved for extreme circumstances,” said Andrew Lewis, executive vice president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

A new state school district proposed by Gov. Nathan Deal and lawmakers would take over schools after three years of failure, but Lewis said there is a good argument for exempting charters. They need more time, he said, citing the experience of Atlanta’s first charter school: Drew Charter got off to a rocky start in 2000, performing at or below the level of nearby traditional schools for several years. Then, the performance improved; the school has been scoring in the 80s and 90s on the CCRPI.

“Like a startup business, there has to be time … for the kids to adjust and for the school to implement its academics and policy,” Lewis said.

Charter schools are increasingly seen as a vehicle for school reform in Georgia.

In 2012, voters were asked if they favored “improving student achievement” by amending the Georgia constitution to let the state authorize charter schools. At that time, only local school districts had that power. The measure passed by a wide margin.

Then, beginning this year, a panel convened by Deal began studying ways to expand alternatives to regular neighborhood schools. More favorable funding for charters has been part of the discussion.

And next year, voters will again be asked to amend the state constitution, this time to authorize the state to take over failing schools, put them in a so-called “Opportunity School District” and either close them, run them or convert them to charter schools.

Despite the objection of charter school proponents, the measure allows the takeover of charter schools, and Deal’s office says the governor is committed to holding them accountable like regular schools. Schools that score below 60 for three years in a row on the CCRPI are deemed “chronically failing” and subject to takeover.

"The governor believes that chronically failing charter schools should be closed, and it's why they need to be eligible for the Opportunity School District," Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said. Deal's list of eligible schools identified 139 in June; four were charter schools.

Two operate under contracts with the State Charter Schools Commission created by that 2012 constitutional amendment: Atlanta Heights Charter School and Ivy Preparatory Young Men’s Leadership Academy in DeKalb County both face closure when their contracts come up for renewal, said commission executive director Bonnie Holliday. Ivy Prep isn’t up for renewal until next year, though, and Atlanta Heights won’t be until 2018.

Another failing charter, Jenkins-White Elementary in Richmond County, whose contract is with the local school district, will lose its charter next year, according to the Georgia Department of Education. The fourth, Intown Charter, was finally closed by Atlanta Public Schools this spring after five years, the first four with failing scores. (The Georgia Department of Education has not yet released last year’s CCRPI results, Intown’s fifth year.)

As with regular public schools, failure among charters is not the norm.

One example of success is The Kindezi Schools in Atlanta, which is taking over Intown’s old building and hopes to absorb 150 of its former students.

Kindezi has scored well on the CCRPI and has partnerships with groups like the Alliance Theatre, which offer student enrichment. Executive Director Dean Leeper said he had no problem attracting teachers for the new building. He pays less than Atlanta Public Schools, but said high-quality applicants are drawn to the smaller class sizes that he said he can offer because he spends proportionately less on administrative overhead than APS.

"They actually spend more money on people who don't work with kids than on people who work with kids," he said, adding that the tension over charter schools in Georgia stems from competition over money. Traditional public schools see the diversion of a funding stream that was historically theirs alone. Meanwhile, charter operators like Leeper say they do more with the less, contending that they get an unequal share of taxpayer dollars.

“Charters are underfunded,” he said. “That’s the subtext.”

Learn more about Georgia charter school performance here, here and here.