Charter schools are public schools of choice, meaning that families choose them for their children. They operate with waivers from some of the regulations normally imposed upon district schools. Georgia voters by approving the constitutional amendment have turned public education into a two-sector system. One is a traditional school district, centrally managed. The other, charter schools, is independent, not owned by a central school board. Both are public, but they’re organized in different ways.  But, to be clear, charter school laws don’t create schools. It enables a process for we, the people to create charter schools that encourage innovation, that push new ways of teaching, that provide disruptive competition encouraging educational improvement in both sectors.

The charter school concept was created in 1974 by a professor at the University of Massachusetts.  The model was then and remains today, a legally and financially autonomous public school that would operate free from many state laws and district regulations.  It would allow better focus on a less traditional curriculum, and more accountability for student outcomes rather than for processes.

Georgia’s charter school law was enacted in 1994, and originally only allowed for the creation of conversion charter schools. In 1998 a law was passed allowing for the creation of start-up charter schools, and the first start-up charter school in the state opened in 2000. In 2008 the Georgia Charter Schools Commission was established as a state-level charter school authorizer. In 2011 however, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the commission’s existence violated the state constitution. However, on November 6, 2012 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Georgia State Legislature the right to create Charter School Laws. As a result of the amendment’s passage, the legislature was able to reestablish a state-level charter school authorizer, the SCSC.

A charter school is an autonomous public school created by a charter contract, typically for five years, between a local school district or the State Charter School Commission (SCSC), and an organizer, such as a group of teachers or a community group, often with a curriculum or focus that is not traditional.  In order to obtain a charter contract the organizers must petition for authorization by the SCSC and / or the local district, and in the application process, must demonstrate clear purpose by detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, and performance goals in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability.  If the charter contract is approved the authorizer grants the charter school autonomy, meaning that the authorizer does not tell charters when to open or close their doors, what kind of curriculum to use, what company to contract for texts, food or paper, etc.  But, the awarded charter contract is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.  It makes the school accountable and forces the school to demonstrate performance in the areas of academic achievement, financial management, and organizational stability.  If a charter school does not meet its terms, it will be closed.

Charter schools are public schools and as such are tuition-free. They are funded according to enrollment levels just like traditional schools.  Local charter schools receive a portion of their funding—a “local supplement”—from the local school district, and state charter schools receive a “state supplement” that’s intended to offset the lack of local funds.  For SCSC sponsored charter schools, the state funds approximately $8,100 per pupil for a brick and mortar schools and $5,400 per student for virtual schools.  In addition to state and local funding, charter schools are also entitled to federal funding such as Title I and Special Education monies. Also, Federal legislation provides grants to help charters manage start-up costs.  Georgia has 104 charter schools in operation with 30 of them being under the SCSC while the other 74 are sponsored by their respective school districts. The students in these charter schools make up almost 5% of the public school student population, with an annual growth of 7%.  The SCSC is expecting to receive and evaluate another 12 charter school applications this summer and numerous others in the districts.

The SCSC has been in effect four short years, during which the staff and its board have acted diligently in the best interest of students while challenging the organizers to deliver on their commitments.  The passion for creating successful paths for Georgia’s children remains on the forefront of every discussion.  To help charter schools succeed the SCSC has implemented the following training seminars: boot camp for new applicants; teacher/leader effectiveness; governance for boards; interpreting students’ college & career ready performance index (CCRPI); and financial management training.  To help meet its fiduciary responsibility the SCSC provides annual auditing services to the schools, at no cost to them.  One other major component of support is the Value Added Model, (VAM) which takes into consideration specific parameters that may impact the actual performance index and allows the school to statistically meet the required metrics with either method.  The SCSC accomplished all of this under budget, enabling it to pass on the savings, amounting to two percentage points of the three budgeted for its operating budget by the legislature, to the schools for four consecutive years

The SCSC continues to seek innovation from organizers, and will always ask them:  “How does this make it better for the kids”.

Jose Perez is a member of the State Charter School Commission


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