You may recall that I vigorously opposed passage of a constitutional amendment in 2012 creating the State Charter School Commission that would allow an alternative method for authorizing charter schools in Georgia. You may recall, also, that the amendment passed handily.
My primary objection to the amendment was a concern that for-profit charter school management companies that had showered campaign dollars on our state’s politicians would get an unfair competitive advantage and elbow everybody else out of the game. To date, that has not happened. Less than half of the schools currently under the commission’s supervision use a management company at all, and of those that do, many use nonprofit organizations for assistance.
Gov. Nathan Deal made a wise choice in appointing Dr. Charles B. Knapp, former president of the University of Georgia, as the new commission’s chairman. I have known Chuck Knapp for 25 years. He is a man of unquestioned integrity who doesn’t play political games.
I talked to Bonnie Holliday, the charter school commission’s executive director, last week about what the experience has been like since the creation of the commission.
“Challenging and exciting,” she said. “When we came into existence, we inherited 15 charter schools, some who are still below the level we expect them to achieve. As for new petitions, we felt that only two had the capacity to operate successfully. In addition, we closed two schools, so for our first year we had a net loss of one. We got a lot of flak for that.” I can imagine.
“We realized that we were going to have to get the public and interested petitioners to better understand what would be required of them in terms of time and money.” Holliday says. “Having an interested set of parents on a charter school board is not enough unless those parents also happen to be attorneys, financial experts, fundraisers and the like.”
As a result of a series of informational meetings, Holliday says the commission has seen much stronger petitions come in. Twenty were received in 2014 and seven were approved to begin operations in the fall of 2015.
This is probably a good place to back up and explain what charter schools are and why there is a State Charter School Commission.
Charter schools are public schools, but with more flexibility. In short, less bureaucratic red tape but more accountability to achieve higher academic performance goals if the school is to retain its charter. If it doesn’t, it will be closed. “That is one big difference in a charter school and the traditional public schools,” Holliday says. “You can’t close down a poor-performing traditional school.”
State charter schools get less funding than the average school under the state’s Quality Basic Education formula. There is no local district supplement. The state provides a supplement based on the five school districts with the lowest tax digests. “That means our schools have to be prepared to raise a lot of money.”
Holliday says, “Most of our schools would like to be locally approved because they would get more money and support from the local district. The issue is there are still some local boards out that seem unwilling to take on a charter school because the board would have less control over day-to-day operations.”
One of the more absurd examples of noncooperation comes from Clayton County, where the board of education put up every kind of obstacle imaginable to the opening of Utopian Academy for the Arts after it had been approved by the state commission. It took an order from a Clayton County Superior Court judge to clear the way, and Gov. Nathan Deal says that such shenanigans won’t be tolerated in the future.
Holliday hopes that kind of behavior will be the exception going forward. “Since the commission was established, we have seen more local charter schools approved.” she says, “Maybe that is because the school boards now understand there is an appellate process.”
We talked about the commission’s hopes for more funding from the Georgia legislature for state charter schools in the future, as well as getting the word out to interested parties across the state about the role charter schools can play in the state’s education system.
As for my concerns about a bunch for-profit charter school management bullies coming in and running roughshod over our charter schools, it doesn’t look like that is going to happen. I will confess I might have gotten this one wrong.
Georgia columnist Dick Yarbrough can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail at P.O. Box 725373, Atlanta, GA 31139. His website is at dickyarbrough.com, and Yarbrough is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/dickyarb