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Opinion: Charter schools prove more productive despite less funding

A longtime public advocate of school choice, Atlanta attorney Glenn Delk wrote a detailed response to the recent AJC report on uneven charter school performance in Georgia.

The newspaper focused on a recent report by the Georgia Charter Schools Commission that found 62 percent of the charter schools it authorized did no better than comparison school districts on the state report card.

Delk says the story ignored key differences.

Several of you have pointed out that Delk advertises his legal services to charter schools and companies, thus has an interest in seeing their numbers increase.

I asked Delk to address that reader concern:

"I've worked for over 25 years in favor of school choice in all forms," he said. "Most of the work has been pro bono, although I have paying clients from time to time. My financial rewards pale in comparison to the millions spent annually by school districts on lawyers. However, since I believe in the free market, all I ask is that charters be given a fair chance to compete."

In his piece below, Delk contends test scores don't tell the whole story of student performance and the AJC failed to consider "how long students had attended the charter school, how far behind the student may have been when they left a traditional school and the funding inequities that exist."

In fairness, I have to note traditional public schools are also judged on student performance --  regardless of how long the students have attended the school, how far behind the kids are when they start and in spite of budget cuts, furloughs and even reductions in the number of days students are in class.

Delk builds his arguments on reports out of the University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project. For another interpretation of charter school data, especially funding, go here.

By Glenn Delk

Recently, the AJC published a news article that conveyed the impression charter schools in Georgia were, on the whole, performing no better, and even worse in many cases, than traditional public schools.

As the late columnist Paul Harvey used to say—“And now, for the rest of the story”

The method used by the AJC to compare the two types of public schools was flawed. The author simply compared the standardized test scores of the two segments on Georgia’s tests, and found “charters are about on par with traditional public schools.”  The author felt the sole criteria for judging the success or failure of charters was their test scores for a year, without regard for how long students had attended the charter school, how far behind the student may have been when they left a traditional school and the funding inequities that exist.

The authors of the funding report gave Georgia’s political leaders an F in terms of giving charters the same funding, autonomy and accountability as traditional districts, finding Georgia’s charter school law “provides inadequate autonomy and accountability, as well as inequitable funding.”

The report details how charter schools in Georgia, when all sources of funding are compared to the funding available to traditional public schools, receive $4200 less per pupil, or 35.3 percent less than traditional district-run schools.

In addition to inequities in funding operations, Georgia charter schools face huge obstacles in locating and financing facilities. The AJC article failed to point out charters have no access to the billions of dollars in local option sales taxes available to traditional schools. In fact, the total amount of facilities funding made available to charters on an annual, competitive bid basis is $1.6 million. By way of comparison, Gwinnett Public Schools just announce a referendum on over $1 billion for facilities.

As the Arkansas report concludes, if traditional public schools were funded at the same level as charters, Georgia’s taxpayers would spend $5 billion less on k-12 education annually.

However, there’s more to the story. The productivity report analyzed traditional public schools and charter schools to determine which type of school gave the taxpayers the biggest bang for the buck. In making the comparison, the report used the scores of each segment on the national NAEP test, not Georgia’s standardized tests.

Why? Because Georgia’s tests are weak, receiving a score of F from nationally recognized organizations in terms of rigor. {Georgia was judged on tests it no longer uses, having rolled out the new Georgia Milestones this year.}

The analysis compared the two segments in terms of their NAEP points for every thousand dollars spent. The results were not even close; charters were found to be 30 percent more productive in math, and 31.4 percent more productive in reading than Georgia’s traditional public schools. In fact, Georgia’s charter schools ranked in the top 10 of all states in productivity. Finally, the report found Georgia’s taxpayers received a far better return on their financial investment from charters than they did from traditional public schools.

The final part of the story involves the answer to this question: “Why are there so few high quality national charter operators in Georgia? I believe the answer is very simple — Georgia is not very attractive to these operators from both a financial and regulatory perspective.

Unlike Washington, Chicago, or even San Antonio, Atlanta and Georgia do not offer money for start-up expenses or facilities; we fund operating expenses for charters at rate 30 percent less than traditional schools. We don’t allow for-profits to hold the charters, nor do we make it easy for operators to expand; we also limit their terms to five years, which makes it difficult to arrange facilities financing.

The day after the AJC published its story, Politico magazine published an article about charter schools in Washington, D.C., that did tell the entire story.  The article chronicles the historic failure rates in the district but states:  “D.C. stands out today because a whopping 44% of all its public school students—36,565 young people in 112 schools, are enrolled in charter schools, the highest percentage in the nation….It’s a figure that also stands out because D.C. charter school students consistently score higher on tests than those at traditional public schools in the capital…According to the Office of State Superintendent, 2014 marked the eighth year in a row that the number of charter school students who are proficient in multiple subjects has increased—and their number continues to exceed the state average…”

Why has D.C. succeeded while Georgia has lagged? First, charters have had an independent authorizer for over a decade; Georgia’s independent authorizer is only in its second year. Second, D.C. charters have ready access to start-up capital furnished by government, business and foundations. Third, D.C. charters receive a facilities allocation that is close to 100 percent of that received by traditional schools and can run as high as $1500 per student. Finally, D.C. charters receive operational funding that is close to 100 percent of the amounts received by district schools.

The final part of the story is the failure of the AJC to ask this question; How much longer are we willing to allow traditional public schools a monopoly on public education in Georgia, a monopoly that spends $17 billion annually? Despite those billions, we have 80 percent of low-income 8th graders not proficient in reading and math and barely 20 percent of all students -- and 6 percent of black students -- meeting the level of college readiness set by the ACT.

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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.