Georgia’s largest public school, an online charter, gets another year

This story has been updated with additional information

The largest public school in Georgia can teach children for at least another year despite a history of poor performance now that the state has extended its permission to operate.

Georgia Cyber Academy, an online school with 11,000 students, has a 5-year charter that was to expire June 30. The State Charter Schools Commission was supposed to consider renewal this year, but with its own internal leadership uncertainties to deal with, the agency decided this week to delay its review until next year.

Some parents say the school suits their needs, since it allows children to attend from home, on their own schedules.

Among those pleading for the extension at a hearing on Wednesday was a teen mother who said the online program allowed her to take classes while also visiting the doctor and changing diapers, a mother of an autistic child who said she couldn’t get special services in her local school district and a mother who said the school gave her children stability and independence as they transitioned from home schooling into public school.

“This is only our first year with GCA, but I’m looking forward to our future,” said Jennifer Moore, who moved with her kids — native Georgians — to Arizona, returned last year and said she may have to move again. Cyber Academy has allowed her son and daughter to attend middle school from home, where she can help them when needed and where they would feel less upheaval if they must move again, she said. “We hope to be a GCA family for many years.”

Though it works for some students, the school, which is costing taxpayers about $80 million this year, gets low scores on the state's accountability system. The Governor's Office of Student Achievement gave it a "D" the past two years, up from an "F" in 2016, and the school got below average marks in a recent state audit. Most of the students have lagged state performance on everything from standardized tests to graduation rates.

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The commissioners voted 6-0 to extend the charter through next June, with in-depth reviews postponed until next year. They also extended the charters for two other schools — Odyssey School and Utopian Academy for the Arts. Both got higher grades than Cyber Academy.

Tom Lewis, chairman of the commission, said this will give the commission time to stabilize its leadership. One commissioner has resigned and the terms of three more on the 7-member body are ending. The governor and top lawmakers make the appointments, and two of them − Gov. Brian Kemp and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan − have only just been sworn in, leaving House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, as the sole bridge to the past.

Also, the long-time agency director, Bonnie Holliday, recently left for a job with a charter school advocacy group, leaving an interim in charge. Decisions about charter renewals are based on a complicated vetting process that looks at academics, finances and governance, a process the current commission wasn't in a position to lead, Lewis said.

It can result in a decision to renew the charter, usually for another five years, or to end the charter, which would cut off state funding and likely lead to closure.

"I don't think it would be fair to the school or to the students to rush a decision," Lewis said.