Eighteen months ago, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the state’s charter school commission, declaring that only local school districts may decide who can open schools in their communities. That decision set off a statewide debate and legislative struggle that will culminate on November 6. That’s when voters will decide whether to re-create the commission through a constitutional amendment.
In this final installment of our Southern Education Desk series on Amendment 1, we examine the demographics of Georgia’s existing charter schools. Their student bodies often don’t mirror those of their surrounding school districts — and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. For more of our coverage of the charter school amendment, click here.
ATLANTA — Ivy Prep Charter Academy, with campuses in both Gwinnett and DeKalb counties, prides itself on being a school of choice. Its staff says that applies not just to families’ decisions to enroll here, but also to how students spend their time. On a recent Friday, students in Michelle Mazza’s class sit in groups, some writing, some reading aloud.
Mazza explains that this activity, known at the school as the Daily Five, is designed to tailor instructions to the individual needs of the students
“They get to choose what they’re reading, what they’re writing, what words they’re working with,” Mazza says. “Because it’s based on what their needs are.”
Charter school advocates tout the schools as a corrective to what they call the one-size-fits-all model of education provided by traditional schools. Advocates say that make a high-quality education available to students who might otherwise slip through the cracks.
Speaking to a crowd of charter school supporters, Heritage Prep Charter Academy parent Latasha Pryor recalls how the school helped her son, who has autism, reach the honor roll for the first time.
“Which was a huge accomplishment,” she says. “So I want to thank all the people at Heritage for believing in my son and my daughter for making sure that they are academically responsible. If they get off track, they’re always calling and they are very involved. I couldn’t have gotten that at a neighborhood school and I didn’t get that at a neighborhood school.”
But many observers worry that the effort to provide parents with choice has unintended consequences — that the spread of charter schools will result in deep divisions between those families who can access choice options and those who can’t.
Herb Garrett, the head of the state school superintendent’s association, explains how this could work in practice.
“For example, if you open a charter school and don’t provide transportation, the only people that can come are the people who can provide transportation,” Garrett says. “Or if you require x numbers of hours of parent volunteer times, well the only ones who can do that are the ones who aren’t working two jobs to make ends meet.”
Others worry that an increasing number of charter schools might intensify segregation in the state’s public school system by attracting families who currently attend private schools, but only to charter schools whose demographics mirror those private schools.
“It’s really easy for someone to put a particular school in a location and those that were students who would normally attend private school and pay tuition now see an opportunity to use public money to bring their kids back into their school system — a charter school system — that they see as comparable to those private schools their kids attended,” says State Senator Emanuel Jones, who opposes the amendment. “I don’t believe our public money and the public trust that the state has in us should be used for those purposes.”
But Mark Peevy, the head of the former state charter school commission refutes the claim that more charter schools will lead to a more stratified school system. And he says the data backs him up.
“In charter schools across the state of Georgia right now, the demographics all tell us that we’re actually serving a higher percentage of minority students in charter schools than are attending traditional public schools,” Peevy says.
That is true when looking at the numbers on a statewide level. But a Southern Education Desk analysis of 2010-2011 Georgia Department of Education data shows a more complicated story when you compare the demographics of Georgia’s charter schools to those of the districts where they’re located.
Georgia’s charter schools are more likely to serve African-American students than surrounding school districts, but they’re less likely to serve students with disabilities and students on free or reduced-price lunch, a standard measure of poverty.
Of the schools approved by the former state commission with data available, all but one — the Charter Conservatory in Bulloch County — serve a smaller proportion of students with disabilities than its school district. Ivy Prep is one of only three former state commission schools that serve a larger share of students in poverty than their school districts.
Ivy Prep’s founder, Nina Gilbert, argues that while she recognizes the access problem, the solution is more charter schools, not fewer.
“We already have a segregated system,” Gilbert says. “We have two systems of public schooling right now — and that’s a system of students who are assigned to good schools and a system for students who are assigned to poor schools. That exists today.”
And if students’ needs aren’t being met — either by school districts or by existing charter school options — Gilbert argues that the amendment eases the way for groups of parents, teachers and community members to open schools specifically designed for them.