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Opinion: Charter schools don't belong in new recovery district. They are already bound by 'perform or close' mandate

Dr. Tony Roberts is president & CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. He wrote this essay in response to the governor's proposed Opportunity School District, a state-run district that would take over low-performing schools.

His point: Charter schools should not be among the schools taken into the special state district because an effective mechanism already exists to monitor and close them.

By Tony Roberts

As a follow-up, AJC reporter Greg Bluestein posted on the AJC political blog that some skeptics of the proposed Opportunity School District were using the argument that the two schools on the list of failing schools already under state oversight—“state charter schools”—were indicative of the kind of job the state would do if charged with taking over schools.

This argument falls apart miserably when the truth about these and other charter schools in Georgia is known.  (For clarification, I am speaking of “traditional, start-up charter schools” approved either by local school districts or the state Charter Schools Commission—not charter systems or college and career academies that are most always under the control of a local school board.)

First, “state charter” school is a misnomer as the state does not own or run charter schools. The state approves charter schools, as do local school districts, but they are operated independently with their own board of directors and their own staff, budget, curriculum, and their own higher goals of academic achievement to which they are contractually obligated in their charter. (The AJC stated it correctly by describing the schools as “state-approved.") By “higher,” I mean at least higher either than the average of similar schools in their district or higher than the state average, in some cases.

Second, charter schools that do not live up to the “promises” made in their charter petition are closed after a reasonable period — or should be.  Sometimes this happens by the school’s charter not being renewed at the end of their five-year contract—or even prior to the end if no improvement is in sight. But the result is the same. Charter schools can only exist if they deliver the results they promise or better.

For example, two state-approved charter schools were closed in 2014: Heritage Preparatory Academy in Atlanta and Scholars Academy in Clayton County. The original charter (or contract) term for Heritage did not expire until June 30, 2018.

However, the state Charter Schools Commission found the school was not meeting its academic achievement goals. Additionally, the school was in poor financial shape due to lower than expected enrollment and higher than planned expenses.

The commission ended the charter four years early and the school was closed. Scholars Academy was authorized prior to the establishment of the new state commission. Since the school had a history, it was given a one-year charter by the new commission to demonstrate its ability to reach its stated charter goals. Only if those goals were met would it be granted a longer charter.

Having failed the one-year performance target, the commission voted in early 2014 to revoke Scholars Academy’s contract, and the school ceased operations at the end of that school year.

This is why charter schools should never be considered as candidates for an Opportunity School District; they already have built-in, rigorous “perform or close” provisions. If they are not demonstrating the results they promise in their charter, they are not proving their worth.

Remember, too, these state-approved charter schools are obligated to deliver higher results on significantly fewer total dollars, with no district-provided facilities. In Georgia, most state-approved charter schools deliver the “promises” and fulfill or exceed the terms of their charters—sometimes against great odds. We should encourage them, learn from them, and fund them more equitably.

 The fact two state-approved charter schools were listed in the “eligible” list of public schools for inclusion in a proposed OSD does not mean that they will end up there.

Because a charter is a “contract,” schools that don't deliver on the terms of their charter and fail will “be closed.”

What if every public school had a five-year contract with a “deliver higher student achievement or close” clause?  That is basically what most charter schools have.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.