The Atlanta metro area has the lion’s share of charter schools, which is to be expected because of its large population.
Only two – Jenkins-White Elementary Charter and Murphey Middle Charter – are in the Augusta metro area. Both of them are conversions of schools run by the Richmond County school system, and both are still ultimately accountable to the district.
Columbia, Burke and McDuffie counties have no charter schools – public schools that generally have more flexibility in structuring academic programs than district-run schools.
Charter school proponents say that, so far, there hasn’t been much interest expressed by the Augusta area, except the Richmond County system’s decision to convert two of its schools.
“We’re not sure. It’s probably the same reason that other districts don’t have any charter schools,” said Georgia Charter Schools Association spokesman Seth Coleman. “In large part outside metro Atlanta, and even some places within metro Atlanta, some people still don’t know enough about (charter schools) to garner support.”
One mechanism that made it easier for a charter school to be established was the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. That body approved 17 charter schools since it was created by a 2008 law. But the Georgia Supreme Court struck down that law in May, ruling that under the state constitution, only local school boards have the authority to open charter schools.
Coleman said that in 2007, 27 charter school petitions went before local school boards across the state, and all of them were turned down. He said that shows how reluctant local school boards can be to approve charters, which is what prompted the 2008 law.
“That’s not to say there weren’t some petitions that were not worthy of being turned into a school, I’m quite sure there were,” he said. “But there also were some that were good ideas, but the districts did not want to deal with going through the process of opening a charter school.”
With the court’s decision, ruling in favor of the seven school districts that filed the lawsuit, charters once again only can be approved by local school boards. It also means charter schools not approved by districts receive less state funding than district-run schools.
“We still feel like the Supreme Court decision was wrong,” Coleman said. “The decision has made it more difficult for those approved as commission charter schools and for those that want to come forward in future. If you have a solid idea for a school with a proposal, financing and a facility, and local district still decides they don’t want the school, you now have no recourse.”
Nina Rubin, the director of the Georgia Parent Advocacy Network, an offshoot of the charter schools association, said that as she has toured different parts of the state, she has provided support for those interested in charters in such areas as Valdosta and Savannah. But, so far, no one from the Augusta area has expressed interest in advocating for charters.
The charter schools association supports any kind of charter school, but Rubin said the ones that are not conversions from traditional schools have more autonomy.
“The independent charter schools are the ones that use their waivers (from district mandates) to the fullest extent to create their own culture, spirit and mission. They are truly mission-driven schools,” she said. “They leverage the charisma of a school leader.”
Rubin said she hopes Augusta can benefit from this kind of charter school, especially now that the Jenkins-White and Murphey communities have seen the benefits of converted schools.
“I would welcome the opportunity to come in and have a community meeting and present a balanced presentation, educate the board members,” she said. “It’s astonishing what people don’t know. I spoke to someone at the Columbus chamber (of commerce) who said they have 18 charter schools in Muscogee County. No, they have three charter conversions, and magnet schools which don’t have to take every child who applies. Charter schools really must take all children, including those with special needs. ”