For the past 2.5 years, I have immersed myself in the charter school ‘culture.’ That is, I have researched, read, and asked many questions of people who have both started and attempted to start charter schools. I have found that there are more people in the former group than the latter, especially here in Georgia. The state created a Charter School Commission in 2008 as a means of approving charter applicants denied by their local school boards. Several metro-Atlanta school districts, including Gwinnett County, sued to challenge the legality of the Commission, claiming that charters took funding from traditional schools. Recently, a Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled that the Commission was legal, schools created under its authority did not take funding from traditional schools, and it could continue to approve charter petitions. As expected, the Gwinnett County School Board voted to appeal the court’s ruling.
Initially, I was whole-heartedly in support of the charter school movement for several reasons. First, for many families, charter schools are the closest thing to a quality and specialized education. Private school tuition is not feasible for many families who want their kids to receive additional instruction in the arts, Math, Science, etc. It is not secret that one’s zip code (home value) plays a significant role in the type of programs offered in neighborhood schools. Second, most charter schools require that parents volunteer throughout the school year and they serve on the governing board. In essence, if the parents are not satisfied with the school’s leadership, they have the power to remove that individual through legal channels. That rarely happens in a traditional school. Lastly, charter schools have greater flexibility with the curriculum, but they are still required to meet the state’s accountability standards. For example, some schools adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum; others opt for a single-gender education model. Ultimately, teachers have more flexibility in addressing students’ diverse learning needs without the pressure of covering a certain amount of information in a prescribed amount of time.
When this dog-and-pony show via the districts’ lawsuits began, I was still committed; however, over the past few months things have changed. During the most recent charter cycle, the Commission denied a number of research-based and well-written charter petitions. A diverse group of individuals submitted petitions with the expectation of opening their doors at the start of the 2010-11 school year. Many of the individuals are current or former educators, with experiences at the school, district, and state levels. A former school superintendent led one of the denied groups. The denied groups were: (1) told that their governing boards were not qualified to handle the daily affairs of the charter school; (2) encouraged to collaborate with a Charter Management Organization (CMO); and (3) budgets indicated a shortfall – even though petitioners received state FTE amounts by the Department of Education’s own Accounting Department. The Commission provided other explanations, not supported by Georgia charter law, to petitioners. Sadly, all of the minority-led groups were encouraged to seek the services of a CMO. I guess that makes sense since one of the schools approved has a member of an Education Management Organization (EMO) on their governing board. The other approved charters were submitted by school districts.
Given the lawsuits, two vacant seats on the Commission, and new Charter Schools Director, who has yet to respond to my April 5 inquiry, I have to ask: Are Georgia’s charter school ‘officials’ capable of the responsibility? Is the Commission even legal at this point, since it does not have the required number of members? Perhaps that’s an issue for the legal battle.
Make no mistake: I still believe in school choice. Charters are the most viable options for many families, including my own, but I know a push towards privatized (and profit-driven) education when I see one.
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