Charter Schools Underperform in Georgia, US, despite Potential Brain Drain

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With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.

(APN) ATLANTA — Georgia voters are currently being faced with a referendum on a possible constitutional amendment which claims as its goal to provide “for improving student achievement” by allowing a state-run commission to by-pass local school board decisions and State Board of Education decisions to approve charter schools that are not approved by either of these boards.

However, Atlanta Progressive News has learned that neither state nor national level data support the claim that the advent of charter schools is associated with an improvement in student achievement.

According to data compiled by the Georgia Department of Education in its 2010-11 Georgia Charter Schools Annual Report, charter schools are slightly underperforming regular public schools in Georgia.

“During the 2010-11 school year, Georgia had 162 charter schools in operation serving 56 districts.  Of these charter schools, 70% made Adequate Yearly Progress this year.  This is comparable to the 73% of traditional public schools that made Adequate Yearly Progress this year,” the report states.  

“While 70% of all charter schools including charter system schools made AYP, only 67% percent of conversion and start-up charter schools made AYP in 2010-11.  This is a decrease from 80% in 2009-10.  In comparison, traditional public schools also declined from 2009-10 to 2010-11 although by a smaller percentage,” the report states.  

“Over the past five years, the overall performance of charter schools compared to traditional public schools has been mixed but both groups have traditionally demonstrated the same general performance trends,” the report states.

The ballot language of the preamble to the constitutional amendment states that the amendment “Provides for improving student achievement and parental involvement through more public charter school options.”  

The actual question then states, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”  

However, local approval of charter schools is already allowed, and already occurs; and state approval is already allowed and already occurs; the amendment, instead, would allow for a third body, the Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC), to approve the creation of new charter schools.

Nowhere in HR 1162–the legislation which authorized the referendum–does it say that charter schools will improve “student achievement” or increase “parental involvement.”  

“The ballot question is intentionally misleading and is designed to elicit a ‘yes’ vote from uninformed voters,” Herb Garrett, Executive Director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, told Atlanta Progressive News.

“If the amendment passes, the Commission could overrule the decision of local school boards.  The state BOE would no longer have the role of reversing a local decision,” Lee Raudonis, communications consultant with Georgians for Educational Excellence, added.

The members of the GCSC would be appointed by state officials by a body appointed by the Governor, the Lt. Governor, and the Speaker of the House, who are not locally elected and thus the GCSC would not be under local control.

The ballot also implies that parents do not have but two choices for public education: traditional public schools versus charter schools.  

However, charter schools do not have a monopoly on innovation, and parents do have other choices.  Magnet schools, for example, have existed since the 1970s.

Atlanta Public Schools has several magnet programs, including an extraordinary magnet program that includes the Therrell High School campus, which offers three specialized schools with unique curricula for students: the D.M. Therrell School of Health Science and Research; the D.M. Therrell School of Law, Government and Public Policy; and the School for Technology, Engineering, Math and Science at Therrell.

As previously reported by APN, John Barge, the Georgia School Superintendent since 2010 and a Republican, supports charter schools as part of a broad spectrum of educational options, but said in a statement that he “cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education.”

Barge went further, stating, “What’s more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools (and worse, in some cases).”

One national study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, looks at gains in student achievement at charter schools versus those in traditional public schools.  The study looks at charter school performance in fifteen states, including Georgia, in addition to Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado (Denver), Florida, Illinois (Chicago), Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas; plus Washington, DC.  “Together, these states educate over one half of the K-12 students in the United States and more than 70 percent of the nation’s charter school students.”

“This analysis shows that in the aggregate charter schools are not advancing the learning gains of their students as much as traditional public schools.  The results are significant in both reading and math, though the effects are small in size,” the CREDO report states.  

“The national pooled results show that charter students improve the learning gains of students in poverty and among English Language Learners compared to their peers in traditional public schools.  Charter students who are Black or Hispanic experience lower levels of academic growth than their peers in traditional public schools.  Special education students fare about the same,” the report states.

When considering student performance in charter schools, it is important to consider the possibility of a brain drain, where charter schools are believed to draw the more highly motivated students, with more involved parents, from the traditional public schools.  The impact of the brain drain is that traditional public schools are left with the task of educating the students whom it may be more challenging to educate.

Therefore, when considering the Georgia Department of Education study, it is important to note, that even if charter schools are causing a brain drain, they are still being generally outperformed by traditional public schools in Georgia.

The CREDO study, on the other hand, instead of measuring school-level data such as AYP, used an innovative research method that matched public school students with charter school students of similar socioeconomic and other demographic backgrounds.

By looking at “gains in student achievement” at charter schools versus public schools as a measure, CREDO was able to control for differences in race, class, and other variables.  In other words, when removing the possible impact of a brain drain, charter schools did not have a positive impact on student performance at the national level.

APN also spoke with Peter Levine, President of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, regarding the impact of charter schools on civics instruction in US schools.  Part of the mission of public schools is to empower the democratic citizens and voters of tomorrow with information they need to understand the political process.

Levine said he knew of no national study examining charter schools and civic learning.

Levine said that there are some qualities of charter schools, such as their typically smaller size, that might be conducive to better civic learning.  However, he noted that because charter schools have wide discretion over their actual charter that establishes their educational program, that charter schools accordingly have equal discretion to provide civics instruction really well or really poorly.

(END/2012)

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