Will state-created charter schools offer poor and minority students a way out of troubled neighborhood schools, as claimed by advocates of a proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot?
Or is there a danger that such schools — created over the protest of local officials — will become de facto private schools, drawing a disproportionate share of their student body from wealthier, more influential families, leaving others on the outside looking in?
As it turns out, the state Department of Education maintains a demographic database of every public school in the state, including state-sanctioned charter schools. (The most recent year in which such data is available is the 2010-11 school year). And the data tell us a lot.
Let’s look at Pataula Charter Academy, which serves students in kindergarten through grade six in a five-county area in southwest Georgia. That’s a poor region — in Early County, 76 percent of students are eligible for a free or reduced lunch. In Randolph County, it’s 90 percent; in Calhoun, 92 percent; in Baker, 83 percent and in Clay County, it’s 92 percent.
The public school systems in those counties are also overwhelmingly black. In Calhoun County, where Pataula Charter is located, just 2 percent of the student body in the local school system is white. In Clay County, it’s a mere 1 percent.
Yet in Pataula Charter, 75 percent of the student body is white. Moreover, the percentage of the Pataula student body eligible for free or reduced lunches (54 percent) is well below the regional average. The state classifies Pataula and its other state-created charter schools as “special” schools, and in Pataula’s case at least, that seems accurate for unintentional reasons.
In other state-created charter schools, the demographic discrepancy between their student body and that of the area they serve is less startling but still significant. At the Charter Conservatory for Arts and Technology in Statesboro, just 9 percent of the student body is black, compared to 36 percent in the surrounding county. The percentage of CCAT students eligible for free or reduced meals is significantly lower as well.
Even the exceptions are interesting. Ivy Prep in Gwinnett County boasts a student body that is considerably more African American than other public schools in Gwinnett. However, the percentage of Ivy Prep students eligible for free or reduced meals is barely half the percentage of the Gwinnett district as a whole.
Given that parental income is a strong indicator of student performance, it’s no surprise that such schools sometimes outperform other public schools.
In the interest of fairness, such statistics reflect challenges with charter schools in general, not just those created by the state. In many places, particularly in rural Georgia, charters attract students who would otherwise attend private schools. Because charters can require parents to volunteer as a condition of attendance, they draw families in which parental involvement — and the workplace and transportation flexibility needed to be parentally involved — are a given.
You then create a system in which committed parents and prepared students gravitate toward charters, stripping other schools of the raw materials from which successful schools are made. That dynamic is an important reason to leave the authority to create charters with local officials who know their own communities, rather than with political appointees in Atlanta.
– Jay Bookman