A new analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution finds fewer low-income students enrolled in metro area charter schools.
Whether these new findings alarm you will depend on whether you believe charters ought to focus on areas with high poverty and low opportunity or whether they ought to be an option even for parents in areas with high performing public schools. The trend nationwide is for charters to open in middle-class communities where parents want more specialization for their kids.
Having watched this movement from the very start, I can attest to the shifts in both goals and definition. I attended a charter school conference 20 years ago where the purpose was defined as creating good options for kids who didn’t have any. Charters were seen as an antidote to failing inner city schools.
Now, charters are seen as a way to create different options for parents who may prefer their children in a school that focuses on math, offers Mandarin or is single gender. Charters have become a way to give more parents more choices, even if they had good choices to start within their local communities. And many people feel that choice, no matter how it is delivered, is always good.
Where do you fall?
Here is what the AJC is reporting: (Look at the story for more detailed data.)
Charter schools educate a smaller proportion of metro Atlanta’s impoverished students than the public school systems in which those charters are located, a new analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
It’s widely accepted among education researchers that academic outcomes are linked to demographics: Schools with more students from low-income households tend to perform poorly compared to schools with more well-off students.
One solution, some argue, is charter schools — independent public schools that operate free of some state restrictions as long as they meet performance goals. Proponents tout them as a superior alternative to traditional public schools, especially for children from low-income families stuck in failing schools and unable to afford private school tuition.
The AJC’s analysis, though, indicates many low-income families have yet to tap into that alternative, even as Georgia voters weigh giving the state clear authority to create more charter schools.
The newspaper compiled data from the Georgia Department of Education for every public school in the five major metro Atlanta jurisdictions. The data, which show the number of students eligible for free or reduced price lunches, are commonly used as a measure of poverty. Schools with enough students in that category qualify for federal aid.
The AJC’s analysis calculated poverty averages for Atlanta and for Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. With the exception of Fulton, the data revealed disparities in all jurisdictions regarding the percentages of impoverished children in traditional public school systems versus those in charters.
Anecdotal evidence suggests charter schools present challenges some low-income households may find difficult to manage.
One issue is transportation, specifically a lack of school buses.
Rae Anne Harkness sends her 13-year-old daughter to Ivy Preparatory Academy at Kirkwood, a state-chartered, gender-separated school in DeKalb County whose poverty rate about matched the local school system’s average of 73 percent last year.
Harkness has heard students are out of control at her neighborhood school, Columbia Middle, where the poverty rate was 87 percent. “My zoned schools are not an option for me,” she said.
But the single mother of two said she sometimes must choose between buying food or the gasoline she needs to drive her daughter to school because Ivy Prep has no buses. “That’s how important it is to me,” she said.
Volunteerism is another consideration that may limit who chooses charters.
For instance, the Museum School of Avondale Estates requires parents to volunteer 10 to 30 hours a year. That requirement probably discourages parents juggling multiple jobs — single parents in particular — from considering the school, principal Katherine Kelbaugh said, although the school is flexible and allows volunteering outside of regular work hours.
The Museum School reported in 2010 that 15 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced price lunches. (The state had no data for the school last year.) “That is not our preference,” Kelbaugh said, noting that the school does not screen students based on parental income.
Cindy Eldridge, the mother of a 6-year-old at the Museum School and a younger boy who will eventually go there, said she doesn’t mind volunteering. But she has the benefit of a spouse and a flexible schedule as a freelancer. She and her husband chose the Museum School over their neighborhood school, Avondale Elementary, not because Avondale’s poverty rate was 89 percent, but because of the way children are taught there.
“At Avondale it was all about the test scores,” Eldridge said. “Learning here (at Museum) is individualized.”
A vote Tuesday on a proposed amendment to the state constitution could affect the number of charter schools created in the future.
If voters support the change, proponents say it will assure that the state can give parents a public alternative to failing schools. Critics say it will establish separate and unequal school systems.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog