By Joel Hall
The Georgia Charter Schools Association (GCSA) spoke to a group of Clayton County residents and students this week about the possibility of seeking charter public schools as a viable alternative to traditional public schools.
The GCSA believes charter schools will give students options,if Clayton County Public Schools are stripped of their accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Andrew Lewis, chief programming officer for GCSA, made the charter schools suggestion at a meeting hosted by the Clayton County Democratic Party at the Morrow Municipal Center.
While Lewis is aware charter schools will not fulfill the nine requirements SACS says Clayton County Public Schools must meet by Sept. 1, he believes they can give children more educational options within the county.
"I do not look at charter schools as a silver bullet," said Lewis. "I only look at it as a way to enhance the educational environment. Charter schools in their simplest form are meant to empower parents with choices in public education.
"What is the best environment for my child to become successful?" Lewis continued. "This decision is best left in the hands of parents, the people who know their children best."
Lewis said at national and state levels, charter schools tend to surpass public schools. He noted charter schools can be independently accredited by SACS -- an option which would protect students from losing HOPE scholarship eligibility.
With a vote of 119-48, the Georgia House recently passed House Bill 881, which if approved by the Senate, will allow for the approval of charter public schools through a state commission, rather than by local school boards. The bill is in the Senate Rules Committee waiting to go before the full Senate.
Lewis said opponents of the bill believe opening the door to more charter schools will further erode the county's school system. He believes, however, charter schools will keep state education funds in the county, and give parents more control over the education of their children.
"Local school boards see charter public schools a threat which takes funding away," said Lewis. "Charter advocates say the money simply follows the child to a public school of choice."
Among local lawmakers, State Reps. Michael Glanton (D-Jonesboro) and Celeste Johnson (D-Jonesboro) voted in favor of HB 881; Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-Riverdale), Darryl Jordan (D-Riverdale), and Joe Heckstall (D-East Point) voted against it.
Glanton said he "absolutely" supports charter schools. "I believe that public schools and charter schools are not opposed to each other," said Glanton. "The status quo has gotten us to where we are now. We have to do something different."
Clayton County high school students present at the meeting, however, were more concerned with what options are available to them in the present.
"I'm worried about everybody in my county, but right now, I am worried about me," said one female student, who identified herself as a junior in a Clayton County pubic high school. She raised concerns about the value of charter schools, if they cannot be installed before Sept. 1.
"It's a great long-term solution," said Joshua Penny, a Jonesboro High School junior and chairman of the Clayton Students Coalition. While he believes charter schools would "restore prestige" to Clayton County, he doesn't believe it will solve the immediate threat of accreditation loss.
"All we can do is try to meet these nine standards," said Penny. "I think if the county pulls together, we can do it."
Michelle Thomas, a member of the Clayton County Democratic Party sees charter schools as part of a potentially two-prong solution. "We saw tonight that charter schools ... they out-perform public schools in many instances," said Thomas. "I think the charter schools should be part of a longer-term approach."
State Sen. Valencia Seay (D-Riverdale) -- one of two Clayton County senators, urged citizens not to lose sight of the SACS issue, or view charter schools as a panacea.
"Clayton County schools are not broken, the school board is," said Seay. "It has nothing to do with administrators, the teachers, or the students.
"We have nine things that we have to address, according to SACS, according to a time line," Seay continued. "The charter school system is not one of those things. At this junction, I am just trying to make sure that we don't take our eyes off the prize. If we start taking our eyes off the nine by the deadline, we are going to lose ... we have to stay focused."
State Sen. Gail Davenport (D-Jonesboro), the other local senator, she preferred not to discuss the charter school issue until after the Senate meets for its 35th day of this year's legislative session on Thursday.