OPINION: Charter schools give students opportunities

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As a mother of four children enrolled in or graduates of Fulton County Schools, I care deeply about public education in my community and Georgia. I know public education changes lives by giving young people opportunities to achieve the American dream.

In this regard, I support Amendment One on the Nov. 6 election ballot to give Georgia’s students more educational options through public charter schools. I support all the ways that our young people can get a leg up, including charter schools, traditional neighborhood schools, dual enrollment at technical schools and colleges, virtual schooling, homeschooling, and private schools. I trust parents more than I trust government to make the best decisions for children.

You see, real accountability can only reside with parents and students who live with the outcomes of a child’s educational success or failure. And parents know one-size-does-not-fit-all, including in educating their children to thrive in a challenging global economy.

Consider this: Our state’s 67 percent graduation rate ranks 47th nationally. Georgia’s eighth grade students place 41st in math proficiency. Among the 14 southeastern states, Georgia ranks dead last in graduates but first in average teacher salaries.

Clearly we need more effective and efficient strategies, including educational options like charter schools. And frankly, I’m troubled that the education establishment is fighting so hard against giving parents more choices and authority instead of celebrating another tool to reach students.

I’m not scared of education reforms that have been tested here and elsewhere; I’m scared of accepting more of the same, including graduating a lower percentage of students than Mississippi.

Predictably, the education associations and unions that regularly lobby against reforms in Georgia and elsewhere find it uncomfortable. But if Georgians approve Amendment One, students will benefit with opportunities that cannot always be pigeonholed within narrow school attendance lines.

The charter amendment would assure that local school boards or the state could approve independent public charter schools to give parents options when local communities request them. The amendment is needed after a controversial 2011 court decision with broad implications overturned charter school policies in state law.

Independent public charter schools will open their doors only if parents choose to send their children to them and close if schools do not meet achievement requirements spelled out in a five-year contract, also called a charter. Most students, though, like my own children, will likely continue to attend their local public school to which they are assigned because it works for them.

Public charter schools are run by local non-profit boards comprised of parents, teachers and community leaders and offer free, open enrollment to children. Furthermore, they hire only public school teachers that qualify for state retirement and health benefits just like teachers at system schools.

Oftentimes, state- and system-authorized charter schools contract with private providers for up to 25 percent of services performed outside the classroom, such as back office accounting, administrative and maintenance functions. This allows schools to funnel more funding into the classroom where real learning takes place.

As an analogy, the new city of Sandy Springs operates similarly. It hires policemen and firemen directly as government employees with benefits, but competitively bids out many non-essential services to keep costs down.

Additionally, not one dollar of local property tax dollars is used to fund state-authorized charter school students. This is also true for high school students that take dual enrollment classes at technical schools and colleges. The state pays for these classes to supplement educational options, but not with local property tax dollars.

Thirty-two other states allow a variety of charter schools to be approved by the state and school systems. It's been tried and true nationally as well as for 10 years in Georgia to complement system schools, increase parental choice and allow students with diverse needs more options to succeed.

Some charter schools primarily serve students at risk of dropping out; others may offer a smaller or more structured, challenging environment. The bottom line is they have a record of getting results.

Our state's future and that of our children and grandchildren depend on a vibrant array of educational opportunities that meet the needs of all students. It’s critical so Georgia can attract well-paying jobs that rely on a well-prepared workforce, not high school dropouts.

Our state's priority must be what's best for our young people, not preserving the status quo, even when a little healthy competition through public charter schools is uncomfortable to the education establishment.

Jan Jones, a state representative from Milton, is Speaker Pro Tem in the Georgia House of Representatives.