Interest in charter schools grows nationwide

Districts challenge new approval process
Murphy Middle theater-arts instructor D.L. Barksdale critiques a student. The program is part of the school's 2007 charter.

Murphey Middle Charter School is somewhat different from most other Richmond County public schools.


And it mostly has to do with the charter in its name.

The school's charter, started in July 2007 at the urging of Richmond County school officials as part of a reform of Murphey, requires students to perform at least 25 hours of volunteer service each year. It also calls for a theater-arts program and other reforms, including enhanced teacher training.

Before the school's charter conversion, it had been designated by the Georgia Department of Education as "persistently dangerous," requiring a corrective action plan that includes its becoming a charter.

"It's a unique situation," Murphey Principal Veronica Bolton said, noting the school is part of the Richmond County School System but is also state-directed.

The charter idea -- which many tout as a greater model for student achievement as it sets some of its own guidelines -- is growing throughout the nation, according to the Center for Education Reform. In the past year, the center says, there has been a 21 percent increase in parental demand for charters.

Bolton said she's not surprised charter schools are growing, noting how it's been well received at Murphey.

Murphey is different from many charter schools in that it's not privately run and was converted from an existing school as opposed to being a start-up charter. The Richmond County School System has one other charter school, Jenkins White Elementary.

On a national level, the Center for Education Reform says laws in most states limit the number of students who can enter charters and don't allow multiple authorities to approve new charters, which can cause demand to outpace supply.

According to the 2009 Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools, there are enough students wanting to attend a charter that another 5,000 charter schools could be filled nationwide.

In Georgia, a seven-member charter commission was recently created. It decides whether to approve a proposal for a new charter school if it's been turned down by local authorities.

Some districts have challenged the commission in a lawsuit, arguing that, because a charter school is eligible for a share of a local district's funding, the local board should have the ultimate say on approval.

Richmond and Columbia counties' school boards recently passed resolutions opposing the state commission's creation, noting that it usurps their authority to have control over their local funds. At a recent media symposium in Atlanta, the issue was listed as a top education concern for the coming year.

Charter commission member Jennifer Rippner said her group is very methodical in its approval process, taking into account such things as community support and innovation.

"It's not us vs. them," she said of the commission's interaction with school districts.

But Attorney Phil Hartley, who was at the symposium, said the commission doesn't have to take into account how a new charter school might pull away state funding from a district's schools.

"The school district is saying, 'Wait a minute. ... What's the overall impact?' " he said.

By the numbers

121: Number of charter schools in Georgia

35: Charter schools in Georgia five years ago

31: Number of conversion charter schools in Georgia like Murphey Middle

65,000: Students in Georgia charter schools

17,000: Students in Georgia charter schools five years ago

4: Percent of Georgia public school students enrolled in charter schools

85: Percent of charter schools in Georgia that made AYP in 2009

61: Percent of charter schools in Georgia that exceeded the student performance of their two closest traditional public schools

Source: Georgia Charter Schools Association



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