Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

School choice week: Does choice in Georgia now only mean charter schools?

A rally will be held at the Capitol Wednesday morning to mark National School Choice week.

The annual Georgia event has become more focused on charter schools than vouchers, which are seldom mentioned in education debates. Charters have become the centerpiece of choice in Georgia.

Charter schools are independent public schools freed from some state and district rules and instead bound by a performance contract. The contract includes academic goals that must be met over a period of years to assure the school's continued operation.

Lawmakers fought to the state Supreme Court for the power to approve and fund charter schools over the objections of local school boards. When it lost in court, the Legislature turned to voters, winning their blessing in a 2012 referendum to change the constitution.

Georgia now has 415 charter schools and an entire division in the State Department of Education.

As for the performance of charters, the AJC reported in July:

Some studies, including one by the state entity that authorizes charter schools, suggests charters are about on par with traditional public schools. The Georgia State Charter Schools Commission recently issued a report that found that 62 percent of the charter schools it authorized did no better than comparison school districts on the state's new report card, the College and Career Ready Performance Index, or CCRPI. Since charter schools are often accused of skimming the better-performing students from traditional schools, the commission also measured performance using a so-called "value-added method" that adjusted for student characteristics "so that schools can be equitably compared."

Under that measure, no state charters outperformed their comparison districts in "relevant" grade levels. Only 8 percent performed at the same level as their districts, the report said.

And at least 18 state and local charter schools, more than one in six in Georgia, received a failing score on the 2014 CCRPI, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That's about the same as the failure rate for all public schools. (Failure means a score less than 60 on the 100-point measure, according to a new proposal that would allow the state to take over bad schools.)

In an annual state-by-state charter school law rankings released earlier this month, Georgia ranks 18th, up five spots from last year. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said Georgia's improvement in the ranking reflected its new regulations strengthening authorizer accountability, charter school monitoring processes and charter school autonomy.

Georgia lawmakers seem to have thrown in the towel on vouchers, in which parent are given tax dollars to pay for private schools. In 2007, the General Assembly approved a voucher program for students with special needs, but there's not been a credible campaign for universal vouchers.

Nationwide, voucher programs remain limited and controversial.

A few days ago, I interviewed education reform scholar and choice advocate Paul E. Peterson about a study he just completed on state standards. The results are embargoed until tomorrow, so check back.

Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

When I asked Peterson what he considers important drivers in school improvement, he cited choice.

"We need to give more choice of schools," he said. "When schools are in competition with one another, they will meet that competitor."

He mentioned the improvement in Washington, D.C., schools, which he credits to the surge in charter schools in the district. Half of DC students now attend charters, he said.

But what about vouchers?

"Well, I think we are having more success with charter schools than vouchers," he said. "We are a little bit more careful with what we let charter schools do and we get higher quality schools. Some of the vouchers schools that have opened up have been pretty low quality."


Reader Comments ...

About the Author

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