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Are Charter Schools Catalysts To Improving Traditional Public Schools?

In business, competition forces innovation and change. Those that don't get left behind.

I had an interesting discussion the other night with some East Atlanta parents.

We started talking about redistricting in the Atlanta Public Schools, then the topic turned to the ways that charter schools impact traditional public schools.

In East Atlanta Patch, we’re fortunate to have a number of good traditional public schools with fiercely dedicated and involved parents: Burgess-Peterson Academy in East Atlanta, Mary Lin Elementary in Candler Park and Parkside Elementary in Grant Park.

But we also have schools that aren’t doing so well.

Due to poor academic performance, some of the schools suffer from under-enrollment and risk being closed as a result of the redistricting process.

Uncertainty surrounding APS schools, as well as questions about the district's final redistricting recommendations, have raised concens within East Atlanta and other neighborhoods. Will all this tumult lead to more charter schools?

Charter schools are public schools but they are not subject to all the rules and regulations of the district. While the district has oversight and charters have performance targets they must meet, these schools have their own boards that govern their operations.

Our Patch has a fair number of charters already:

  • Ivy Preparatory Academy for Girls and Ivy Prep for Boys in Parkview
  • Tech High in Reynoldstown
  • Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School in Ormewood Park and Grant Park
  • Wesley International Academy in Custer/McDonough/Guice
  • Drew Charter School in East Lake

The redistricting has sparked quite a few “what-if” discussions among parents in all Patch neighborhoods. One idea even involves converting Grant Park’s King Middle School into a charter school.

At the state capitol, Republicans are pushing legislation to grant the Georgia Charter Schools Commission the authority to create charter schools. Currently, that power rests with locally elected school districts, and the Georgia Supreme Court has upheld that move.

Democrats oppose the measure, noting that it lacks set funding levels. Also, in a state where 90 percent of students attend public schools, this move represents a slow creep toward universal educational vouchers.

“We are very much under threat of universal vouchers in this state,” state Sen. Nan Orrock, a Democrat, said Wednesday night at a meeting of the Inman Park Neighborhood Association.

Voucher supporters are “really, really anti-public schools," she said. "This is the same crowd that’s cut over a $1 billion out of K-12” in the last eight years.

Charters aren't exactly education's magic bullet.

The Georgia Department of Education released a report this week which showed that in 2010-11 school year, just 70 percent of the 162 charter schools operating in the state met the annual yearly progress standards.

Those standards, or AYP, are mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act that Congress enacted in 2001.

In comparison, 73 percent of traditional public schools met AYP.

I don’t have kids. Until the redistricting issue, I hadn’t considered Georgia education from a parent's perspective.

But I do wonder, what’s wrong with offering parents more choices with respect to their kids’ education?

Most of my career as a journalist has been covering business and one truism in that world is that competition forces all players to innovate and improve to keep customers.

Just look at some of the world’s most admired companies like Apple, Toyota and Google.

Companies that don't innovate and improve risk failure. Just look at Kodak — which is seeking bankruptcy protection — Office Max and Hewlett-Packard.

In schooling, we've had parochial and non-religious private schools as an alternative for decades. But parents who send their kids to private institutions still have to pay for their local schools through property taxes. In effect, they're paying twice.

At least with charter schools, which are funded through the same local property tax dollars, APS gets a referendum of sorts from parents who want a public school education but feel the district or their local school isn't operating at a level they trust or find acceptable.

I know children aren't commodities — although K-12 education is a multi-billion dollar business in America.

Are there lessons to be applied from business in education?

I'm curious to hear your take.

Rae Harkness February 17, 2012 at 09:53 PM
My kids are at Ivy Prep in Kirkwood. Although it is the school's first year, I am very impressed with the teachers and curriculum. We even have our teachers' cell phone numbers if the kids forget a homework assignment. The children have an extended school day, after school support and Saturday Academy if they fall behind. My neighborhood schools do not offer this.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 17, 2012 at 10:50 PM
That's a lot. Did Ivy Prep replace Peachtree Hope Charter after it closed?
JR Garcia February 17, 2012 at 11:13 PM
@Peralte -- You write: "One idea even involves converting Grant Park’s King Middle School into a charter school." Can you please substantiate this claim? This is a baseless rumor gone awry, IMHO. There are no plans on creating a charter high school and any discussions of expansion at ANCS only deal with the possibility of increasing class ratios. Thanks.
Rae Harkness February 17, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Not exactly...but the fact that Peachtree Hope closed left the perfect location and they were able to open the doors in 30 days.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 17, 2012 at 11:49 PM
@ Ramiro: I've talked to more parents in the last few weeks than I can count and a few have told me that was an idea bandied about. No one said it's been formalized into a plan and the folks I talked to weren't necessarily linking it to ANCS. The other idea that people have bandied about is converting King to to a temporary home for Jackon while the school gets refurbished with the King Middle kids going to Coan. Supt. Davis told me he's even heard those ideas suggested, too when We interviewed him this week.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 17, 2012 at 11:54 PM
@Rae: that's what I figured. Do you happen to know if a lot of the P'tree Hope kids ended up attending Ivy Prep?
JR Garcia February 17, 2012 at 11:57 PM
@Peralte -- Thanks for the update / explanation. Just wanted to be dismiss any possible incorrect interpretations re: ANCS and KIng. I'm not aware of other charter schools having that discussion or consideration. I have heard discussion amongst parents re: using Coan or King as the Jackson relocation site, 'if' one were to be reconstituted. In that scenario, it would likely be Coan, since King made AYP and Coan has not made AYP under NCLB. Besides, King has a much higher utilization number and students in the school than Coan. Thanks again.
Rae Harkness February 18, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Quite a few, I think. We were lucky because they opened enrollment so near the beginning of the school year that we didn't have to hold a lottery. Everyone got in that wanted to. We are preparing now for the lottery for next school year.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 18, 2012 at 04:05 AM
No problem, Ramiro.
Chris Murphy February 18, 2012 at 01:16 PM
I second Ramiro's observations. As a matter of fact, I brought up the possible use of King as a charter site in the future-* if *APS closed King, as was on two of the original 4 options presented by demographers. Being overly familiar with ANCS's middle campus- I worked on many building issues as a parent volunteer- that building has too many issues to fix and stay open. The first I heard of using Coan as the Jackson relocation site was at an informal meeting of parents, etc., and it was an Edgewood grandfather who brought it up. These thoughts and discussions were by interested parties, not officials or Board members of the schools, and it was an effort to get ahead of the redistricting process, as the options presented were not to our (SE ATL parents) liking. We'd like a more efficient use of space, as taxpayers; we'd like a contiguous, no-split feeder structure to a cluster, as parents and citizens; but anything we propose is all to an eye to get good performing schools lead and staffed by qualified, competent individuals, and a lot of system support. If we can get APS to give us the educational opportunities we need- and that's a big 'if'- we'd be happy with system schools.
Chris Murphy February 18, 2012 at 01:17 PM
(con't.) But back to your question: does competition help in education? The lesson from ANCS says it had an effect on APS. ANCS was created because parents in SE ATL were not satisfied with the schools here. They were poor performing, had lousy, antiquated buildings, and were not acceptable for our kids (they weren't acceptable for any kids). The system kept shrinking (it still is, partly a phenomenon of families having less children, but mainly due to families fleeing the city when their children became school-age). The system was deaf- and many times, arrogant- to parent and citizen concerns. When it became apparent that a charter movement would meet legal and system requirements- and that effort took years- APS finally moved forward with plans to build Parkside. After a slow start, Parkside has become a good, sought-after school, mainly because of excellent leadership. ANCS proved to be such a draw that it had to go to tiered zoning, and then many of the same parents were able to charter a middle school. (And, ANCS was given the oldest school in Atlanta as a site; the fire that destroyed the original building was the best thing that ever happened to ANCS, outside its granted charter.) I do not believe APS would have built Parkside when it did nor given it the resources it has if ANCS had not come into existence. So to your question, yes, competition has improved the educational offerings for most of the kids in SE ATL.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 18, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Thanks for your insights, Chris. I didn't know the back story of how ANCS got its site so thanks for the history lesson, too.
heather hallett February 20, 2012 at 10:17 PM
The business analogy doesn't exactly work with public schools. Teachers and schools are almost solely judged based upon test scores, but these tests are taken by their students, not by the schools or teachers. Students take the tests but there are neither carrots nor sticks hanging in the balance for the kids - only for the schools/teachers. It truly makes no sense; imagine that your job depended upon the performance of "employees" who are not getting paid and may or may not care about keeping their "job". I am sure that many people are happy to have the charter school options, but they certainly serve to hurt public schools. When 50% of students zoned for a school elect to not attend that school (charter schools send this percentage up), the school is robbed of its best asset - parents and students who are invested in education and their school.
heather hallett February 20, 2012 at 10:17 PM
Schools are reflections of communities - not independent agents acting upon the population. Most teachers and schools actually do a pretty good job - and you would have to prove/disprove this notion by going into the schools and watching them, NOT by looking at test scores. The problem is that they are asked to do something that is very, very difficult and in too many cases with little community support. Creating good schools involves communities dedicated to this endeavor. Charter schools create an enormous roadblock for the remaining shell of a public school in my humble opinion. If charters were forced to take over an entire school zone, this problem wouldn't be as salient, but my guess is that charters would die pretty quickly as we all discover that public schools just have a really hard job to do. Time to stop beating them up and rolling up our sleeves.
Péralte Paul (Editor) February 20, 2012 at 11:52 PM
Thanks for your comments, Heather.
Chris Murphy February 21, 2012 at 01:16 AM
Those posts contain a lot of misinformation. The kids are not supposed to advance unless they pass the tests in the 5th and 8th grades (and maybe 3rd grade?), so there are certainly "sticks and carrots" for the students. Those grades are shown too, to the parents. There are many objectionable things about NCLB and its implementation, but the CRCT tests have proven to be an exceedingly low bar to cross over- they neither prove nor promise that a passing grade shows proficiency. The sad truth is that APS- even when cheating occurred- has not shown it can educate the population it serves. And it's not for lack of resources: APS will spend upwards of $830 million, from all sources, for under 50,000 students. Chew on that for a while. ANCS was started before NCLB. The elementary schools in SE ATL at that time were all in old, dilapidated buildings; the middle schools were built without windows (!). Both the system's and the schools' staffs were impervious to complaints, cooperation and involvement. The data that were available back then did tell a story, and it wasn't a good one. Test scores shouldn't be the only measure of a teacher's performance (nor a student's), but they do show a snapshot of the level of educational attainment. Taken together, all those 'pictures' compelled parents to take a different path.
Chris Murphy February 21, 2012 at 01:36 AM
Do note that the charter schools in the City of Atlanta are a part of APS. They have open enrollments; they are on the same calendar. What they do different than the 'regular' APS schools varies by the charter itself, but they do try to meet their student populations where they are, and move them educationally forward. In this, they have been successful where APS has not. The charters do not "hurt" the regular schools; in fact, if those at the regular schools paid attention, they could learn a few things. Charter schools do the hard work required to get and keep city kids interested, interested long enough to learn. They constantly try new strategies to get parent involvement in their kids' education, which is key. They do this with a fraction of the funds that are spent at the regular schools. And since they are charters, meaning they can draw up different contracts with teachers, and have different qualifications for those jobs, they are not stuck with ineffective teachers as many regular schools are. While APS also has many dedicated and competent educators, it also has many who aren't, and it shows. If APS went after ineffective teachers with the same zeal it has harassed those who would not go along with the cheating, the falsification of numbers and grades, the theft, the incompetence of management, it would be a different system, for the better. But it hasn't, and has lost legions of professional educators.
Chris Murphy February 21, 2012 at 01:37 AM
You can blame charters for the shape of APS's schools, but it just doesn't wash.
John Dawson May 28, 2013 at 03:56 AM
First, this may have been mentioned previously but haven't had a chance to read every post, but Tech High closed I believe due to the financial pressures it was under by not receiving the funding it was due from APS. Second, I have never voted for a republican in any race at any level in my 25 years+ of voting, but would strongly consider it if it meant support and funding of charter schools in GA.

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