State commission gives charter schools mixed grade

Most Georgia lawmakers see charter schools as a vehicle to improve public education, but the performance of one category of these institutions has proved modest so far, according to a recent state analysis.

The State Charter Schools Commission assessed the performance of 13 schools it authorized and found a mix of outcomes, with performance generally on par with traditional public schools. The commission’s report did not address the dozens of charter schools local school districts have authorized, but it’s the commission rather than local districts that is identified as the charter school authority in a school-reform initiative with broad backing by the Georgia General Assembly.

The establishment of more charter schools is a major element in Gov. Nathan Deal’s proposed “Opportunity School District,” which would be empowered to take over failing schools. The law authorizing it, passed by the General Assembly with a two-thirds vote this year, will amend the state constitution if voters ratify it next year. It would allow a superintendent appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate to choose among four methods for school improvement, including “reconstitution” as charter schools.

Also, Deal has impaneled advisers to recommend new policies. Members of his Education Reform Commission heard about the charter-schools report during a meeting in early May. The panel will issue recommendations on a host of topics, from funding to teacher pay and school “choice,” a blanket term that includes charter schools.

The State Charter Schools Commission report says state-chartered elementary schools did not perform as well as the average public elementary school in Georgia, while most state-chartered middle schools performed as well or better. The high school comparisons were mixed, with the charter schools generally performing better in language arts than in math, science and social studies.

At a subcommittee meeting of the Reform Commission in May, members discussed changes in the law that would compel school districts to share sales tax revenue and little-used school buildings with charter schools. Formal recommendations from the commission are not expected until later this year.

Ehab Jaleel, the executive director of Amana Academy, a charter school in Alpharetta, testified that charter schools get unequal funding for facilities and technology. He said his teachers get paid less, too.

“We have come to the conclusion that we are playing on an uneven field,” he told members of the subcommittee.

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