By April 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew wanted to see land. The men spent more than a year sailing to Antarctica and six days drifting in lifeboats with little food or sleep. Finally, the men spied a narrow, 30-mile long enclave called Elephant Island.
Writing in his book Endurance, Alfred Lansing says the crew had “a feeling of astonishment which soon gave way to a sense of tremendous relief.”
A century after Shackleton’s adventure, Georgia parents should know the feeling. A state supreme court ruling almost disbanded many of the state’s charter schools due to a lawsuit five years ago (voters subsequently approved a ballot measure in 2012 that resolved the issue). In 2013, the Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent said no new charters should open in the city until a pension lawsuit was complete. Charter schools have served the city for years, and, according to a Georgia Department of Education report, half of the charter campuses in the state are located in metro Atlanta (the pension case was settled two years later).
Having weathered these storms, parents and policymakers would welcome the sight of land in the form of student success.
Yet charter school achievement does not always have a simple explanation. This is especially true in Georgia, where charter schools fall into four different categories. Raw test score analyses benefit from comparisons of similar students and schools (and random student assignment to schools if possible).
Even without such data crunching, there are strong results that vary across school types and grade levels that should give students, parents, and lawmakers hope for the direction of state charter schools.
First, on the nation’s report card, more low income Georgia charter school 8th graders scored at the “Basic” level or above than their peers in district schools (Figure 1). In reading, 82 percent of charter students score at Basic or above, while 69 percent of their peers in district schools scored at this level. In math, 65 percent of charter 8th graders scored above Basic, compared to 63 percent in district schools. Fourth grade students are behind their peers in reading and no data are available for math.
Source: National Center for Educational Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress Data Tool. Author calculations.
These results mean a higher percentage of low-income 8th grade Georgia students attending charter schools demonstrated at least the basic skills necessary in these subjects. Similar research is available from the Goldwater Institute using Arizona charter school data (with even more positive results) and in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual report card.
The complication in these data is that Georgia charter schools fall into four different categories (the number of schools of each type is in parentheses):
- “Start-up” (77): These are the independent public schools most policymakers and parents are familiar with. Teachers and community leaders form these schools as an alternative to assigned district schools.
- “Conversion” (18): A “converted” public school, as the name implies, is a school that changed its status from a traditional public school to a charter school and given more operational autonomy in exchange for higher levels of accountability.
- “State start-up” (20): A state commission authorizes these schools (the state supreme court ruling mentioned above threatened these schools).
- “Charter systems” (326): These school systems are traditional districts given more autonomy so that the rules under which the schools operate resemble charter school regulations.
More test scores are available in the the state department of education’s annual report on charter schools to help parse through these distinctions. According to end of grade test results, converted charter schools and start-up charters are well ahead of their district peers in nearly every subject in 8th grade in the percent of students exceeding the state standard (see Figure 2 for an example of 7th and 8th grade comparisons; for more results, see the link beneath the chart for the full report).
Source: Georgia Charter Schools and Charter Systems, 2014-15 and 2015-16, Georgia Department of Education, p. 44, http://www.gadoe.org/External-Affairs-and-Policy/Charter-Schools/Documents/2015%20Charter%20Schools%20and%20Charter%20Systems%20Annual%20Report.pdf.
The most encouraging finding is that the average results for all charter schools (the orange bar in Figure 2) are higher than non-charter schools (light blue bar) for every subject, in every grade except 8th grade Social Studies and Math in the state report. Charter high school students also out-performed district peers in English, geometry, biology, and economics.
Georgia charter schools should have parents breathing a sigh of relief. The project of creating and sustaining quality schools so that every child has the chance to succeed is never finished, but Georgia has given parents several ways to do so. With all that Georgia charter school families have been through, this success is welcome.