For more than two decades, charter schools have been one of the most debated topics in education policy on both the federal and state levels. The Trump Administration is a huge proponent of charter schools; however, the Administration’s efforts have been met with significant resistance. In his most recent budget proposal, President Trump was criticized for asking for $60 million in additional funding for federal charter school grants, while also proposing to cut the Department of Education’s budget by 10 percent.
On the state level, 45 states and the District of Colombia have charter school laws, and state legislatures continue to debate the effectiveness of their policies. In 2019, 21 states enacted over 60 bills pertaining to charter schools. While some states created or expanded charter schools, like in West Virginia, which enacted charter school legislation for the first time in 2019, other states, such as California, made sweeping changes to the charter school system and how the schools are authorized.
Broader trends in this important segment of the education reform movement can be best understood by looking at a case study of Georgia’s experience in the charter school arena.
Charter schools first emerged in Georgia in 1995 with the approval of three conversion charter schools and later expanded in 1998 to include the first locally approved start-up charter school in the state. For almost a decade, with limited exceptions, local school districts were the sole source for charter school authorization in Georgia.
Following the passage of a constitutional amendment in 2012 and subsequent establishment of the State Charter Schools Commission (SCSC) in 2013, local districts have incrementally moved away from their role as charter authorizers with the trend for approving new charter schools shifting to overwhelmingly state commission authorized schools.
According to a recent study by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), in 2013-2014, local charter schools accounted for 43 percent of new charter approvals. Two years later, local schools accounted for only 17 percent of new charter schools and by 2017-2018, 100 percent of newly approved charter schools were authorized by the SCSC.
While local boards have continued to renew charters for existing local schools, another recent trend has been that of local charter schools seeking to transition to state authorization at the end of their local charter term. Whereas local charter schools once had the advantage of local tax dollars and district resources, legislation adopted in 2018 to improve parity in funding and available resources for state charter schools continues to make the SCSC a more attractive authorizer to new applicants and existing charter schools.
In the 2019 Petition Cycle, the SCSC approved more schools than in any previous cycle, giving the green light to nine charter applications, including seven new start-ups, one replication and one locally-approved charter seeking to transition.
As the main driver of charter school growth in Georgia, previous SCSC approvals provide valuable insight and predictors of success for future charter school petitioners. The NACSA study identified a number of factors for charter school applicants that improve their chances of approval, including operator type, early identification of a school leader, and early identification of additional support from an incubator, philanthropy or community partner. In addition to identifying these predictors of success, NACSA also found a number of characteristics in Georgia distinct from national trends.
Georgia stands out from other states in the number of charter schools operating without the assistance of a Charter Management Organization (CMO) or an Education Management Organization (EMO). Between 2013 and 2018, NACSA found that more than 80% of charter schools approved in Georgia were operating as “freestanding” or “unaffiliated” charter schools. Additionally, NACSA found that charter proposals for STEM programs and inquiry based or project-based learning were much higher in Georgia than other states.
“Since our company’s inception, its mission has been to provide families with a high-quality, personalized education experience where students can thrive. While parental demand for school choice remains strong nationally, state policymakers often need to be convinced to promote educational options, particularly in the face of strong resistance from traditional education groups seeking to protect the status quo and charter authorizers that prioritize accountability over innovation.”