Update Monday evening: Atlanta school board members voted to delay until next month a decision on Drew Charter School’s plans to expand to a high school.
The AJC news story on the opposition to Drew Charter School opening a high school neatly encapsulates the challenge of charter schools in today’s economy: In these times of decimated school budgets, should charter school expansion and purpose align with the school system’s needs, goals and finances?
For example, one of Gwinnett County’s initial objections to Ivy Preparatory Academy was that it was single-gender, which the county did not see as part of its vision. It argued that single gender schools had no proven research record of higher academic performance, and might open the system up to lawsuits.
With Drew, the point of contention is financial.
APS superintendent Erroll B. Davis is raising this question: Can Atlanta afford to approve the opening of a new high school when it has 6,200 empty seats in its existing high schools? Is that a responsible use of tax dollars?
Some of those empty seats are at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High, down the road from where Drew would open its new high school in east Atlanta.
But the parents supporting a new Drew high school have a question of their own for Davis: Can they afford to send their kids to a high school with a long history of under performance?
Accordion to the AJC:
The objection to Drew’s expansion is notable for Atlanta Public Schools, a district more friendly than most to charter schools. But it echoes the conflict in districts across metro Atlanta, where the ambitions of charter schools are almost always at odds with traditional public schools.
The main reason? Money.
Charter schools are public schools; they’re free to students and run independently of local school boards, although they must follow state guidelines. State tax dollars follow a student from traditional schools to the charter of choice, meaning traditional schools lose money as they lose enrollment.
APS sends about 8 percent of its budget to charter schools. Enrollment in Atlanta charter schools is projected to increase next year, according to district budget documents.
Davis said Atlanta isn’t opposed to adding more charters, but says his system has too many empty seats to support a new high school. The existing Jackson High, about three miles from the proposed Drew site, expects about 876 students next year although it has space for 1,450. All told, APS has 6,200 empty seats at the high school level.
Drew’s proposed high school won’t offer anything students can’t get at a traditional high school, Davis added.
“If I were to come before the board and say ‘I’d like to build another high school,’ I’d be laughed out of the building because one of the things we made clear in the redistricting is that we have too many high schools,” he said. “The only reason I would agree to an additional high school is if it were strategically meeting a need we weren’t. And I have yet to see that.”
Drew supporters say they have built a successful program in early and middle grades and want to continue the success with a $55 million high school. Plans are to open the 200,000-square foot high school in 2013-14 with 100 freshmen and add one class per year until the school reaches 600 students in 2023.
The money will be raised by the East Lake Foundation, Drew’s primary nonprofit supporter.
“We feel like our kids are on a trajectory, if they could just continue the kind of culture, intensity and academic design we’ve started here, they would be on a path to college, success and life,” said Cynthia Kuhlman, chairwoman of the board of Drew Charter School Inc.
Atlanta has 12 independent charter schools, more than any other district in the state. But denials are not unusual: The charter school approval rate is 20 percent to 25 percent, in line with the national average, according to APS officials. The district has denied 23 charters and approved seven in the past three years.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog