Data show relatively fewer students in poverty served by charter schools

Charter schools educate a smaller proportion of metro Atlanta’s impoverished students than the public school systems in which those charters are located, a new analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.

It’s widely accepted among education researchers that academic outcomes are linked to demographics: Schools with more students from low-income households tend to perform poorly compared to schools with more well-off students.

One solution, some argue, is charter schools — independent public schools that operate free of some state restrictions as long as they meet performance goals. Proponents tout them as a superior alternative to traditional public schools, especially for children from low-income families stuck in failing schools and unable to afford private school tuition.

The AJC’s analysis, though, indicates many low-income families have yet to tap into that alternative, even as Georgia voters weigh giving the state clear authority to create more charter schools.

The newspaper compiled data from the Georgia Department of Education for every public school in the five major metro Atlanta jurisdictions. The data, which show the number of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches, are commonly used as a measure of poverty. Schools with enough students in that category qualify for federal aid.

The AJC’s analysis calculated poverty averages for Atlanta and for Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. With the exception of Fulton, the data revealed disparities in all jurisdictions regarding the percentages of impoverished children in traditional public school systems versus those in charters.

Anecdotal evidence suggests charter schools present challenges some low-income households may find difficult to manage.

One issue is transportation, specifically a lack of school buses.

Rae Anne Harkness sends her 13-year-old daughter to Ivy Preparatory Academy at Kirkwood, a state-chartered, gender-separated school in DeKalb County whose poverty rate about matched the local school system’s average of 73 percent last year.

Harkness has heard students are out of control at her neighborhood school, Columbia Middle, where the poverty rate was 87 percent. “My zoned schools are not an option for me,” she said.

But the single mother of two said she sometimes must choose between buying food or the gasoline she needs to drive her daughter to school because Ivy Prep has no buses. “That’s how important it is to me,” she said.

Volunteerism is another consideration that may limit who chooses charters.

For instance, the Museum School of Avondale Estates requires parents to volunteer 10 to 30 hours a year. That requirement probably discourages parents juggling multiple jobs — single parents in particular — from considering the school, principal Katherine Kelbaugh said, although the school is flexible and allows volunteering outside of regular work hours.

The Museum School reported in 2010 that 15 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced price lunches. (The state had no data for the school last year.) “That is not our preference,” Kelbaugh said, noting that the school does not screen students based on parental income.

Cindy Eldridge, the mother of a 6-year-old at the Museum School and a younger boy who will eventually go there, said she doesn’t mind volunteering. But she has the benefit of a spouse and a flexible schedule as a freelancer. She and her husband chose the Museum School over their neighborhood school, Avondale Elementary, not because Avondale’s poverty rate was 89 percent, but because of the way children are taught there.

“At Avondale it was all about the test scores,” Eldridge said. “Learning here (at Museum) is individualized.”

A vote Tuesday on a proposed amendment to the state constitution could affect the number of charter schools created in the future.

If voters support the change, proponents say it will assure that the state can give parents a public alternative to failing schools. Critics say it will establish separate and unequal school systems.

“It’s going back to a dual system — not based on race but based on economics, and this is harmful,” said Eugene Walker, chairman of the DeKalb County school board and a vocal opponent of the constitutional measure. Charter schools can be “selective” in the students they admit, he said, and they attract ambitious parents with resources. “They are not created for the general population like public schools are.”

Charter proponents say the amendment will offer more parents — particularly the poor — a choice, while forcing competition on traditional public schools.

Mark Peevy ran the state commission that authorized the Museum School before the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the agency lacked authority under the state constitution, triggering the current amendment fight. He observed that most of the handful of schools the commission approved in metro Atlanta had higher poverty rates than charter schools established by local school boards. The commission was sympathetic with parents in poor neighborhoods, he said.

“Those parents were not happy with the schools they were in,” Peevy said. “The schools were struggling, and that’s why the parents wanted different options.”

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