Tuesday, November 5, 2013 – When all the votes were counted on election night 2012, politicians, pundits and ordinary folks were very surprised to learn that more Georgians cast more votes in favor of the Georgia Charter Schools amendment than they did for either presidential candidate.
Georgia parents spoke loudly
The charter schools amendment won the support of 2.1 million Georgia voters. Sixty percent or more of voters endorsed it in Fulton, Fayette, Gwinnett, Henry, Forsyth, DeKalb, Cobb, Spalding, Walton, Barrow, Newton and Rockdale counties. In Clayton County, one of Georgia’s most troubled school districts, the amendment garnered 71% of the votes.
“Last November voters across Georgia spoke loud and clear that they demand more public school options for their children,” says Dr. Tony Roberts, President & CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association (GCSA). “Our campaign was about hope – hope for better public schools for all families in Georgia. Voters believe that public charter schools can help deliver that promise.”
The promise of innovative, high achieving public schools
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools granted the freedom to operate autonomously from the local school board, in exchange for higher student achievement and accountability.
Today, one year after the passage of the Amendment, the promise of better public school options is seen in a surge of petitions around the state, from parents, teachers and communities who want to launch innovative, high achieving public charter schools.
In metro Atlanta three new charter schools opened in August. Fully twelve percent of Atlanta Public School students are now enrolled in the district’s 14 public charter schools. DeKalb County has approved a charter school with a unique approach that serves students on the autism spectrum alongside “neuro-typical” students. Clayton County will see an arts and STEM middle school opening next fall.
Tybee Island Maritime Academy and Savannah Classical Academy are new locally approved charter elementary schools that opened in Chatham County this fall. Two new charters are slated to open in Bibb County. And a flexible blended learning high school called Provost Academy Georgia, has opened centers in Augusta, Savannah, Macon and Atlanta. With a mission to boost graduation rates, it serves students who have not been successful in traditional settings.
Grassroots groups in Richmond, Lowndes, Peach, Cobb, Forsyth and Dougherty counties are hard at work on charter petitions.
Restoration of the State Charter Schools Commission
The amendment brought back the State Charter Schools Commission (SCSC), a state-level charter school authorizer that reviews charter petitions that have been denied by local school boards. The Commission has a new staff led by Executive Director Bonnie Holliday, a new board chair, former UGA president Dr. Charles Knapp, and new commissioners from around the state.
And it has proven to be a rigorous reviewer of petitions – so much so that last week charter school advocates were disappointed to learn that the State Charter Schools Commission only recommended one new school for approval.
Charter Clusters & The Rise of Parent Power
While opponents of the amendment predicted a wave of “outside entities” coming into Georgia to open new charter schools, that hasn’t happened. Instead, parents and educators around the state are seizing the reins and using the flexibilities of chartering in unexpected and innovative ways.
In DeKalb County parents and teachers in seven schools that feed into Druid Hills High School are petitioning for a Druid Hills Charter Cluster (DHCC) with a mission to develop college and career ready students and a choice of learning models across the seven schools. The cluster will be accountable to DeKalb County schools, and must outperform the district, but the cluster will set its own pay scales and hiring practices. School principals in the cluster will have the flexibility to use instructional approaches like International Baccalaureate, Montessori, STEAM, and Advanced Placement classes.
Ninety-two percent of the teachers and parents in the cluster voted in favor of moving the petition forward to DeKalb County. Their momentum has inspired other communities around the state to consider forming their own autonomous charter clusters.
“One year later, the sky has not fallen in traditional public schools and the passage of the charter schools amendment has not increased class size or put teachers out of work, as opponents had warned during the charter amendment debate,” GCSA’s Tony Roberts says. “More and more people understand that charter schools are public schools designed to complement traditional public schools with innovation and broadened opportunities for learning. They are also engines for economic development.”
“Communities are rising up and proposing public charter schools that meet local needs. Rural towns are saying, ‘We can’t perpetuate failing schools any more. We must improve graduations rates and keep our young people from leaving. Urban mayors and chambers of commerce are partnering with teachers to say, ‘Let’s remake our schools and prepare our students to have solid futures right here in Georgia.’’”