Everybody loves charter schools. Republicans and Democrats alike say that charter schools are a great idea that can solve all the problems of our public education system.
"We’re looking for innovation, we’re looking for creativity," said Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue as he signed a bill that lets school systems apply for charter status. "This legislation will allow innovative local systems to apply the same techniques that charter schools have used to generate academic success."
Republican Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle supports charter schools so strongly that he pushed for adoption of the legislation that allows local school boards to operate as charter systems.
"I believe in charter schools," then-governor Roy Barnes said in a 2002 speech. "Traditionally, they use innovative means to meet high goals. They encourage children to learn and parents to be involved."
Another Democrat, President Barack Obama, said during his campaign last year, "we should be experimenting with charter schools . . . I’ve consistently said, we need to support charter schools."
Charter schools are public schools that are typically organized by parents and community leaders. The schools are freed from some of the rules and regulations that apply to public schools in exchange for an agreement to produce specified results from their students. There are now more than 100 charter schools in Georgia.
Charter schools are seen by many as the formula for success in education. But are they? Independent studies of charter schools show that they may not be quite the silver bullet people think they are.
A report just released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University analyzed data from more than 2,400 charter schools in 16 states, including Georgia. The CREDO report found that students in charter schools, as a whole, are "not faring as well as students in traditional public schools."
Only one in six charter schools – 17 percent – had academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their public school counterparts. Nearly half of the charter schools — 46 percent — showed no significant difference between the performance of their students and public school students.
"The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face," the study said.
Georgia was among the states where the performance gains made by charter school students were "no different than the gains for traditional school peers," according to the report.
Other studies have shown similar results for charter school performance.
An analysis of test data by the U.S. Education Department during the administration of George W. Bush showed that charter school students generally did not perform as well as those in regular public schools. The federal study said charter students scored significantly lower than regular public school students in math, while in reading there was no statistically significant difference.
"It must be acknowledged that charter schools have a very mixed record," said Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, one of the state’s largest education groups. "Some do better than public schools, some do worse. Most do about the same. This is hardly a transformational change."
In recent years, Georgia has been diverting a large share of the taxpayers’ money away from traditional public schools toward the funding of charter schools. The state Department of Education — under the leadership of Superintendent Kathy Cox — doesn’t seem to have done a very good job of monitoring how these schools are using the money.
An audit released earlier this year by the state auditor’s office said the department does not adequately monitor charter schools to make sure they comply with the terms of their charter. Auditors said the department’s charter school division has yet to comply with a 1998 state law requiring an independent review of whether charter schools are meeting required standards.
"You have to be very careful about the accountability of charter schools -- once they get all this freedom, once they get all this flexibility, you have to be sure there are accountability standards," said Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
"If it’s done well," Hubbard added, "charter schools can be fantastic. But accountability is the missing piece of the puzzle here in Georgia."
Tom Crawford is the editor of Capitol Impact’s Georgia Report, an Internet news service at www.gareport.com that covers government and politics in Georgia. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Wednesdays.