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Former Members of the Georgia Charter Commission Speak Out

There are strong opinions on both sides of the Charter School debate. This is the opinion of seven former members of the Georgia Charter School Commission.

What is best for Georgia students? That is the question that should always be front and center when discussing education reform. One-third of Georgia students do not graduate high school, so our education system clearly needs to be improved—for the benefit of our children, our families, our communities, and our economic future.

Too often debates about education reform are centered on money and power. We wish to re-focus the debate toward what is best for students. 

On November 6, Georgians will vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow parents and other community members to start public charter schools—and to have the decision whether to allow these schools to open made by an independent and neutral observer. Charter schools are public schools, free and open to all students in their respective attendance areas—just like all other public schools. Charter schools provide an opportunity for parents and other community members to create excellence and innovation within our public education system.

For two years, Georgia had an independent body, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which was able to approve charter schools. A 4-3 Supreme Court decision closed the Commission. On November 6, Georgians will decide whether a new independent body will be created.

As former (and unpaid) members of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, we want to set the record straight about the performance of the charter schools we approved. According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, of the 8 Commission charter schools operating in the 2010-2011 school year, 75 percent made AYP. This compares to 72.7 percent of all public schools in Georgia, and even more importantly 66.7 percent of schools in the districts where state charter schools are located.

Second, Commission charter schools served a more disadvantaged school population. According to the state of Georgia, Commission-approved charter schools served a higher proportion of minority and low income students than other public schools.

How do charter schools impact students in traditional public schools? There have been 19 studies of the effects of school choice on students in traditional public schools. ALL of them find that either students in traditional public schools experience learning gains after the creation of school choice or are unaffected. There is not one shred of evidence that public school students are harmed. Perhaps when parents have the option of leaving to go to a charter school, their school boards and administrators are more willing to listen to parents and teachers.

Based on data from the state of Georgia, commission-approved charter schools attained higher student achievement with more disadvantaged students at a lower cost to Georgia taxpayers. Perhaps this is why President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton, the other President Bush, Governor Romney, Governor Deal, Lt. Governor Cagle, and a bipartisan majority of more than two-thirds of the Georgia legislature all support charter schools.

Some state reports have included other public schools that are governed by local school boards with Commission-approved schools. These statistics do not accurately convey what Georgians will be voting on this November 6. Opponents of charter schools have used these misleading statistics in their literature opposing the amendment. 

Why were the Commission-approved charter schools so successful? We think it was because only the best of the best applications were approved. We only approved 16 of the 83 charter applications that came before us. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruling stopped several of these schools from opening.

When voting in November, please vote on what you think is best for Georgia students.

We will be voting “yes” on November 6 to promote choice and excellence in public education.

Signed,

Former Members of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission

Jennifer Rippner

Dr. Ben Scafidi

Dr. Charles Knapp

Tom Lewis

B.J. Van Gundy

Eric Rosen

Melanie Stockwell

Georgia Charter School Referendum Information - August 2012

  • The constitutional amendment on the November ballot would provide Georgia with the same ability to authorize state charter schools that it had exercised for the previous 11 years.  The Georgia Supreme Court sharply limited that ability and jeopardized it going forward in a 4-3 decision in 2011.
  • 32 other states allow alternate authorizers of charter schools, including state boards and commissions.  States that do not allow an alternate authorizer have the fewest public charter schools because school systems are generally more resistant to opening them.
  • The state authorizes and holds accountable state charter schools, but it does not run them. An individual non-profit organization located in a community and generally comprised of parents, teachers and civic leaders enter into a “charter” with the state - a binding contract - and governs a school, as the contract requires.  Similarly, Georgia has a long history of providing services funded and overseen by the state, but delivered more efficiently and locally within communities by non-government entities.  Examples include private Pre-K programs and contracted roadwork, non-profit services for aging and disabled citizens, and families opening their homes for foster care.  The result is more choice for Georgians than government alone can offer.
  • Parents choose whether their children attend optional public charter schools putting “local control” where it counts the most – with parents.  Charter schools serve as a choice and complement to traditional schools that have an attendance zone.  Even in states with a robust array of charter schools, though, the majority of students continue to attend traditional, system-controlled schools.
  • The state would be able to only consider authorizing charter school applicants that have a defined attendance zone after the respective school system(s) denied the application, offering an appeal as an alternate authorizer.  Charter schools with a statewide attendance zone would be allowed to apply directly to the state for authorization, such as a virtual charter school.
  • Public school educators teaching public school students at public state charter schools receive state health benefits and participate in the teachers state retirement plan per current state law.
  • Total funding (for operations and facilities) per student is lower at state charter schools than for students in all but two of the 180 school systems in Georgia.*  State charter school funding is tied to the average total funding per student of the five lowest wealth school systems as defined by the “equalization formula.”  State charter schools are treated in the same manner as system schools with regard to austerity reductions and “five mill share calculation” reductions.  No school system property tax or SPLOST monies can be used to fund state charter schools per the state constitution.
  • 75% of the existing “bricks-and-mortar” state charter schools operate in a school system that does not have a single district-approved charter school.  For most parents, the only available public school choice is the school located in their respective attendance zone.  Since the majority of school systems have never approved a charter school and few “bricks-and-mortar” state charter schools exist, the state virtual charter schools offer the only public alternative available to most Georgia students.
  • There are 11 bricks-and-mortar state charter schools and two virtual ones.  The previous Commission approved only the highest caliber applications during its several years of operation (2008-2011), creating a high bar.**  When the Commission began, strong pent up demand for charter schools existed among parents desiring choice because few systems had approved charter applicants.  For example, systems denied all charter applications in 2007 and 25 of 27 applicants in 2008.
  • State charter schools are governed by Georgia non-profit boards as required by state law.  They may purchase the services of non-profit organizations, such as KIPP, or for-profit companies to provide assistance with back room accounting, maintenance, or day-to-day management.  Likewise, the Georgia Department of Education and individual school systems also purchase services from non-profits and for-profits on a daily basis.  For example, one for-profit consulting company, Ombudsman Educational Services, has a contract with 23 Georgia school systems with a total contract of $15.5 million or an average of $673,000 per system. The DOE and districts also purchase the services of non-profits, such as Communities in Schools to provide management of alternative education programs.  Some systems purchase management services for system-approved charter schools.
  • Authorization and oversight costs will be borne by state charter schools through an administrative fee deducted off the top from their state revenues. Because the authorization and oversight of state charter schools is similar to the services already provided by the Georgia Department of Education for all other charter schools, there is no need to duplicate the majority of these services.  The previous charter commission operated on an amount equal to 2% of state charter schools' funding (state law caps it at 3%).  The Commission would be comprised of volunteers appointed by the Governor, Speaker and Lt. Governor and serve under the authority of the State Board of Education.  The previous Commission operated similarly and successfully.
  • In contrast, school systems spend an average of 5.5% of operations funding on system central offices, not counting the cost of the DOE, which provides oversight over all school systems.  Atlanta School System spends 21%, or almost $3000 per student, on its central office.  Gwinnett School System, the largest system in Georgia with 10% of the state's students and teachers and an enormous ability to achieve economies of scale, ranks in the top 20% of expenditures per student on central office at $579.
  • The National PTA now supports all types of public charter schools and no longer opposes alternate authorizers.  The organization recently amended its position crafted in 1995 on charter schools.  The National PTA no longer differentiates its position between school system-authorized and state-authorized charter schools.  In its recent letter to state PTAs, the national organization stated that almost half of charter schools nationally were not authorized by school districts.

Georgia devotes 43% of its General Budget*** to K-12 public education, or $7 billion.  On average, (system) public school operations are funded through 48% state, 41% school system and 11% federal monies.  The proportion of funding that school systems provide has remained the same over 10 years (up 1%). The incremental funding amount the state currently devotes to state charter school students (to assure adequate funding and without system tax dollars) is less than one-fifth of one percent of the Georgia General Budget ($18 million).  Every time a student chooses to attend a state charter school, his or her share of local property and SPLOST dollars remain behind to fund students at system-controlled schools.

*Sixth lowest when operations and facilities funding are considered.

**The earlier Commission approved 13 new schools and five pre-existing state charter schools.  After the Court decision, some failed to open; others temporarily shifted to system-approved schools.

***Not including tax monies constitutionally dedicated to specific purposes, primarily lottery and gasoline tax revenues. 

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