The number of Georgia charter schools has more than doubled since 2016 and more are planned in areas outside Atlanta including Macon.
The push to expand comes despite a lack of concrete evidence that charter schools consistently offer a better or even comparable choice for public education. It also comes as traditional public schools nationwide grapple with a teacher shortage and a yearslong trend of declining student enrollment.
Charter schools compete with traditional local public schools for resources, students and teachers. Critics of the school choice movement argue charter schools divert money from already under-funded traditional public schools.
Proponents say charters are publicly-funded alternatives to the monopoly of local school districts that can not only offer a better educational opportunity for students but also drive school districts to make positive changes through competition.
“One of the intents is just to provide more high quality public school options to families and educators,” said Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “The hope is that by doing that, you’ll be providing educators the flexibility to innovate in that they’ll do things that work and the larger district will then adopt some of those practices.”
The success and value of state charter schools in Georgia is measured annually by the State Charter Schools Commission, an autonomous state entity that operates separately but alongside the Georgia Department of Education.
Instead of using raw test scores to determine effectiveness and value, the State Charter Schools Commission uses statistical estimates in a highly complex formula that determines “value-added measure” and “student growth model estimates” for each state charter school.
Jeffrey Schiman, associate economics professor at Georgia Southern University, was contracted by the State Charter Schools Commission to calculate the value added measurement for each of the 37 state charter schools that operated in 2021-22.
“What value added is, it’s a measure of a school’s effect on their students’ achievement,” Schiman said. “We predict how a student would perform this year, based on how they performed last year, and their characteristics. Then that predicted performance is compared against how they actually performed.”
The difference between what students scored and what they were predicted to score is called the “value added measure,” Schiman said.
The performance evaluation report for 2021-22 shows few of the 37 state charter schools operating in 2021-22 added value to students who might otherwise have attended traditional, local public schools. The report shows most charter schools perform about the same or worse than traditional public schools.
Thirty-two state charter schools served elementary grades, but only four of the schools performed higher than average.
Thirty state charter schools served middle school grades but only seven performed above average.
Only two of 11 state charter schools serving high school students out-performed comparable local public schools.
Despite evidence showing students at most state charter schools perform about the same or worse than comparable local public schools, a federal grant will help the state replicate and expand existing state and local charter schools.
The State Charter Schools Foundation – the nonprofit arm of the State Charter Schools Commission – is awaiting the approval of the U.S. Department of Education on its plan to spend a $38.3 million grant to implement the “Georgia Strategic Charter School Growth Initiative,” which aims to create 6,000 more seats in charter schools in identified target areas over the next five years.
Target areas identified in the grant application include Macon, Athens, Albany, Augusta and Columbus.
The no. 1 goal of the grant is to “support the replication, expansion, or creation of 32 high-quality charter schools responsive to community need in Georgia,” according to a summary of the grant application submitted by the foundation, commission and the Georgia Department of Education.
Many Georgians do not know what charter schools are, which is why some of the grant money awarded last year paid for an education campaign and the launch of findagacharter.org, said Michele Neely, president and CEO of the State Charter Schools Foundation.
The website “lists every charter school in the state so that there’s more transparency and available information to the parents and the community members,” Neely said. “We’ve had some informational sessions and events and promotional items and things to help spread the word and help educate people around the state.”
The State Charter Schools Commission staff refused an interview for this story but agreed to answer questions via email.
The U.S. Department of Education declined to provide a timeline or status update on when it might approve the state’s plan.
Competition to a monopoly
Charter schools have existed in Georgia for nearly 30 years. They are independently operated public schools controlled by unelected boards of nonprofit organizations.
Charter schools are not subject to the same rules and laws as local school districts. The extra freedoms are spelled out in periodic performance contracts with either the local school district or the State Charter Schools Commission. The deal is this: in exchange for waiving certain state rules and laws, such as class size, curriculum and teacher certification, charter schools promise to out-perform traditional public schools.
There are two types of charter schools in Georgia. Local charter schools are authorized by school boards and receive a share of local tax dollars from public school districts. State charter schools are authorized by the State Charter Schools Commission and receive a supplement from the state commission in lieu of local tax dollars.
Georgia’s first charter schools opened in 1995, two years after enabling legislation was passed. The law allowed for “conversion charter schools,” meaning existing public schools could convert to charter schools. In 1998, the legislature amended the law to allow charter schools to be locally approved and started from scratch by nonprofits.
The state legislature created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission in 2008 to authorize charter schools in addition to the Georgia Department of Education. However, the commission dissolved in 2011 as the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled it was unconstitutional.
Republicans in the Georgia legislature led the effort to amend the state’s constitution to allow the state to create charter schools. Voters approved the amendment in 2012 and the State Charter School Commission was born in 2013.
Since then, the State Charter Schools Commission has been the primary driver of charter school growth in Georgia, according to a 2019 report from the National Association for Charter Schools.
The seven-member state commission is made up of unelected political appointees whose names are submitted to the Georgia Board of Education by the governor, president of the state senate and speaker of the house of state representatives.
The commission has an administrative staff of about 15 who are tasked with making recommendations to the commission on state charter school openings, closures and monitoring. The appointed commissioners make the final call on those decisions and have voted against staff recommendations.
Many of those on the commission are former state legislators or people with political clout who have some personal stake in the successes of certain schools.
State law still requires state charter petitioners to first be rejected by a local school board before the State Charter Schools Commission will consider granting it a charter.
The Georgia School Boards Association, a nonprofit that advocates for excellence in local school board governance, “supports charter schools that serve students with innovation and high-quality programming and curriculum provided that they are formed with approval from the local board of education,” a spokesperson said in an email. “School boards are closest to the communities they serve and are more in tune with the needs. … The community needs to determine if the need exists and can it be fulfilled by a state charter school.”
Promises broken, few consequences
It’s a mixed bag of success and failures when it comes to local and state charter schools that opened in Macon.
When Cirrus Academy opened in 2016 on Pio Nono Avenue, it was the first and only state charter school in Bibb County. Its inaugural class came from local public schools or Macon Charter Academy, a local charter school that was ordered to close by the Georgia Department of Education amid a litany of issues related to governance, finances, academics and operations during its single year of operation.
Though hundreds of mostly Black families choose Cirrus every year, there is little evidence the school offers a better educational opportunity than students might otherwise have received at a Bibb County public or elementary school.
Cirrus promised to offer a curriculum focused on dancing, ballet, string instruments and performing arts. Within months of opening, the school fell short of making good on that promise. In response, the State Charter Schools Commission amended the school’s charter contract to exclude those parts, according to notes from a 2016 meeting. The school next promised a STEM curriculum – science, technology, engineering and math – but is not an accredited STEM school.
A dozen miles north of Cirrus’s campus in the poor and largely Black Unionville neighborhood is a mostly white charter school called the Academy for Classical Education.
The school, called ACE for short, opened in 2014 as a local charter school authorized by the Bibb County Board of Education. Its stately, 42-acre campus on New Forsyth Road is a stone’s throw from the contested Monroe County border and less than a mile from Bass Pro Shops. The school adopted a classical model curriculum incorporating Latin, arts and athletics.
ACE consistently meets or exceeds the State Charter Schools Commission’s performance standards. Stellar academic performance earned the school federal recognition in 2020.
A closer look at its students, whose academic successes helped earn ACE the national accolade, shows enrollment demographics are the racial inverse of the mostly Black Bibb County School District. Few students at ACE live in poverty, according to state enrollment data.
ACE does not offer transportation to students even though consultants, past iterations of its governing board and the Georgia Charter Schools Association have separately recommended it as a way to diversify its student body.
The State Charter Schools Commission has not required ACE to offer transportation and its diversity and disproportionate discipline issues have not been a topic of discussion at the commission’s monthly meetings.
Ziebarth said charter schools are a reflection of the community and housing patterns. Most charter schools in America serve mostly Black, disadvantaged students.
“The existing context is kind of important before charters came along,” Ziebarth said.
Bibb County schools integrated in 1970 on order from a federal judge. Many residents opposed white and Black children attending the same schools. Racial integration drove a proliferation of white flight private schools, most of which remain mostly white and wealthy.
“Where we kind of get heartburn is, if you have a more segregated residential area or community, and people try to start up a white flight school … They can easily be serving a diverse group of kids but because of where they’ve located the school or how they’ve done the marketing for the school, it’s not diverse at all.”
Are charter schools adding value?
In Schiman’s value analysis, one of only two charters serving high school grades that performed above average was ACE.
But in all other grade bands, ACE’s contribution to student achievement is “indistinguishable to the state average, but statistically lower relative to its comparison schools,” according to the report.
Cirrus Academy’s contribution to elementary and middle school achievement was no different than the state average or those of comparable schools.
“There’s variation in charter school effectiveness, but the SCSC results suggest that charter schools perform quite well on average,” Schiman said.
The State Charter Schools Commission also uses its own measurements of success, the annual academic accountability report, which sometimes contradicts findings in the value-added report Schiman authored.
In its academic accountability report for the 2021-22 school year, the State Charter Schools Commission touted Cirrus Academy as among 84% of state charter schools that “outperformed” comparable local schools.
But Cirrus scored lower than comparable schools on all measures except the state commission’s “progress” measure. The State Charter Schools Commission notes in the report that schools meeting standards must score no more than 3% below comparison schools.
Cirrus Academy’s standardized test scores were only slightly lower than those of comparable Bibb County schools. Though the students showed progress in some subject areas, standardized test results from 2021-22 show Cirrus “is one of the lowest-performing schools in the state,” according to documents State Charter Schools Commissioners reviewed during a visit to the school in late August.
Schiman said he was not comfortable speaking about specific schools but stated the value-added reports demonstrate consistency, especially when looking at trends over several years.
“I think there’s some reliability,” Schiman said. “I think the information is telling you something that could be used to help you make decisions about who’s doing well, and who’s doing average and who’s not doing well.”
Major issues missed
State charter schools submit a trove of records to the State Charter Schools Commission as a part of their annual evaluation. The commission’s staff reviews the documents and determines whether schools are meeting, not meeting or exceeding financial, operational and academic standards. Schools are scored between 0 and 100 in each category.
Though the State Charter Schools Commission tweaks requirements almost yearly, the performance framework sometimes fails to capture major issues at schools.
For example, annual performance reviews for the Academy for Classical Education make no mention of the school’s disproportionate discipline of nonwhite students or lack of diversity in its demography, which is mostly white compared to the mostly Black public school district.
In another example of issues missed in the annual review, Cirrus received a 95 out of 100 on its financial performance score despite a finding of a material weakness in internal controls in its 2022 independent audit, which was submitted six months late.
An evaluator for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers reviewed the State Charter Schools Commission’s 2023 framework and wanted to know how it determines the overall financial risk of charter schools.
“Our sole resource for financial viability is the independent audit,” an unnamed State Charter Schools Commission staff member told the evaluator, according to a summary of their evaluation. “If anything doesn’t come about in the audit, then we aren’t holding schools to it…There is still something that we’re missing. We’ve had schools that have a clean audit but underlying there are issues such as fraud and lack of checks and balances in place.”
When it comes to academics, a consultant for Cirrus Academy recently told the governing board the State Charter Schools Commission has never closed a school for its academic performance.
The Macon Newsroom asked the State Charter Schools Commission for examples of schools it closed for not meeting academic standards. The State Charter Schools Commission did not provide any specific examples.
Erica Acha-Morfaw, spokesperson for the commission said, “Generally, schools close following the non-renewal of a charter contract. Historically, the SCSC has non-renewed schools for a variety of reasons, including academic performance.”
The Macon Newsroom is a nonprofit newsroom at the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University.