EDISON, Ga. – One of the major initiatives of Georgia’s 2012 legislative session was the passage of a constitutional amendment that would allow the resurrection of an independent state board to authorize charter schools. Throughout the session, the debate hinged on questions of who should decide whether and where charter schools can be opened and how the schools will be funded.
But will re-starting an independent state charter school commission fundamentally improve the quality of the state’s schools? Policymakers are hoping that the answer is yes, but there’s little research so far that gives clues either way.
School days at Pataula Charter Academy begin with a morning meeting where teachers greet each of their students individually by name. In Sheba Harris’ class, that means identifying each of her first graders in song.
“Where is Abigail, where is Abigail?” the students sing. “Here I am, here I am!” Abigail identifies herself.
“We’re glad you’re here,” the verse concludes, as the chorus moves on to the next student.
The students came here this morning from across five rural counties in southwest Georgia, which makes PCA something of an anomaly among Georgia schools. The now-defunct state charter commission approved the school two years ago to offer the national “Expeditionary Learning” model to rural students whose only other option would be more traditional district schools.
Harris says that as much as possible, she tries to let students lead the lessons. Abigail is today’s student leader, so as her classmates work their way through a list of questions — what is today’s date? how may coins are in the coin purse today? — she writes the answers on a board.
“It’s been an amazing experience, because the school I came from, it wasn’t so much student-led as it was teacher-led,” Harris says. “So I get to see them grow in such a way that just blows my mind.”
PCA is a school that’s doing well: it has a higher percentage of students meeting or exceeding state test standards than four out of five of the school districts it draws from.
It’s also a school that would not exist without a statewide chartering body, because no single district would sponsor them, says principal Kylie Holley. She says the financial burden on any single rural district would be too large.
“We in no way want to do anything that would be detrimental to them,” Holley says. “But also, just to get the number of students that we need to fund the school, we needed to pull from more than one county.”
That drain on local school districts is precisely what opponents of the charter amendment worry will happen. But PCA thinks that by going the multi-district state route, they can be fair to each district and still give students an alternative. And the hope is, more options for charter schools will improve education for all.
But is that hope justified?
“On the surface, the question, globally, is do states that operate with this structure have better outcomes than others?” says Stanford University professor Margaret Raymond, the author of one of the most comprehensive national studies of how charter schools perform.
Raymond says she hasn’t seen any research that answers this question; though her team is preparing to start a national study that will examine it.
But a lack of evidence in either direction hasn’t stopped states around the country – not just Georgia – from pursuing this model, which Raymond calls a “vertical” chartering system, where the state can overrule the decisions of local boards.
“What’s interesting to me is that there are a lot of states who are moving to this vertical model on the presumption that it provides more superior outcomes,” Raymond says.
She says that’s because policymakers in many states believe that good schools are frequently rejected for non-educational reasons. In other cases, like in Arizona, Raymond says local boards have proved to be poor arbiters of what a good charter application is and what it isn’t.
Mark Peevy, formerly the head of the Georgia’s charter commission, argues that there’sanother reason why state authorizing improves school quality.
“It also encourages local school districts to work harder with and more seriously with local charter school petitioners,” he says. “Because if they choose not to take a hard look at the merits of a particular application, those folks have the opportunity to go another route.”
Of the schools that the state commission approved before the state Supreme Court shut it down, some are doing well, like Pataula; others are not. The schools are succeeding at roughly the same rate as charters approved by their local school boards.
In the fall, it will be up to voters to decide whether they believe that a state chartering board will promote more good schools, or if local control will remain the sole authority for commissioning charter schools in Georgia.