Land Ho!

By April 1916, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s crew wanted to see land. The men spent more than a year sailing to Antarctica and six days drifting in lifeboats with little food or sleep. Finally, the men spied a narrow, 30-mile long enclave called Elephant Island.

Writing in his book Endurance, Alfred Lansing says the crew had “a feeling of astonishment which soon gave way to a sense of tremendous relief.”

A century after Shackleton’s adventure, Georgia parents should know the feeling. A state supreme court ruling almost disbanded many of the state’s charter schools due to a lawsuit five years ago (voters subsequently approved a ballot measure in 2012 that resolved the issue). In 2013, the Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent said no new charters should open in the city until a pension lawsuit was complete. Charter schools have served the city for years, and, according to a Georgia Department of Education report, half of the charter campuses in the state are located in metro Atlanta (the pension case was settled two years later).

Having weathered these storms, parents and policymakers would welcome the sight of land in the form of student success.

Yet charter school achievement does not always have a simple explanation. This is especially true in Georgia, where charter schools fall into four different categories. Raw test score analyses benefit from comparisons of similar students and schools (and random student assignment to schools if possible).

Even without such data crunching, there are strong results that vary across school types and grade levels that should give students, parents, and lawmakers hope for the direction of state charter schools.

First, on the nation’s report card, more low income Georgia charter school 8th graders scored at the “Basic” level or above than their peers in district schools (Figure 1). In reading, 82 percent of charter students score at Basic or above, while 69 percent of their peers in district schools scored at this level. In math, 65 percent of charter 8th graders scored above Basic, compared to 63 percent in district schools. Fourth grade students are behind their peers in reading and no data are available for math.

Source: National Center for Educational Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress Data Tool. Author calculations.

These results mean a higher percentage of low-income 8th grade Georgia students attending charter schools demonstrated at least the basic skills necessary in these subjects. Similar research is available from the Goldwater Institute using Arizona charter school data (with even more positive results) and in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual report card.

The complication in these data is that Georgia charter schools fall into four different categories (the number of schools of each type is in parentheses):

  • “Start-up” (77): These are the independent public schools most policymakers and parents are familiar with. Teachers and community leaders form these schools as an alternative to assigned district schools.
  • “Conversion” (18): A “converted” public school, as the name implies, is a school that changed its status from a traditional public school to a charter school and given more operational autonomy in exchange for higher levels of accountability.
  • “State start-up” (20): A state commission authorizes these schools (the state supreme court ruling mentioned above threatened these schools).
  • “Charter systems” (326): These school systems are traditional districts given more autonomy so that the rules under which the schools operate resemble charter school regulations.

More test scores are available in the the state department of education’s annual report on charter schools to help parse through these distinctions. According to end of grade test results, converted charter schools and start-up charters are well ahead of their district peers in nearly every subject in 8th grade in the percent of students exceeding the state standard (see Figure 2 for an example of 7th and 8th grade comparisons; for more results, see the link beneath the chart for the full report).

Source: Georgia Charter Schools and Charter Systems, 2014-15 and 2015-16, Georgia Department of Education, p. 44,

The most encouraging finding is that the average results for all charter schools (the orange bar in Figure 2) are higher than non-charter schools (light blue bar) for every subject, in every grade except 8th grade Social Studies and Math in the state report. Charter high school students also out-performed district peers in English, geometry, biology, and economics.

Georgia charter schools should have parents breathing a sigh of relief. The project of creating and sustaining quality schools so that every child has the chance to succeed is never finished, but Georgia has given parents several ways to do so. With all that Georgia charter school families have been through, this success is welcome.

More Choices for Teachers with School Choice

Legislatures across the country have been discussing education reform for many years, specifically educational choice options. This year Georgia joined the conversation considering education savings accounts. Much of the dialogue is student centered – as it should be. However, there is one audience that is not often mentioned, but stands to gain a great deal from more school choice options in the state, and that is teachers.

As education options increase across the state, so do employment options for teachers. Public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools and many more options exist, allowing teachers to thrive and use their creativity and passion for teaching in just the right environment. This is highly beneficial for students as well!

Public school teachers often spend more time on administrative tasks, than actually teaching in the classroom. A study by Alliance for Excellent Education found that approximately “half a million teachers either move or leave the profession each year.

Florida is leading the nation in options for school choice, allowing teachers to use choice programs to open their own schools. Teacher run schools not only allow for an education model that tailors the curriculum to the students’ needs, but also allows teachers to maximize their expertise.

With a robust choice menu in Georgia, teachers would have more options than ever before to seek employment. Flexible work-from-home positions for online academies and higher teacher pay, are just two benefits of more choice programs. Choice also creates competition of free-market values among the profession so exceptional teachers will rise to the top and be rewarded.

Education Savings Accounts Could Help Virginia and Georgia “Face the Strain”

Last week, the Virginia senate passed what could become the nation’s sixth education savings account law, pending a governor’s signature. HB 389 would allow children with special needs to apply for an account. With an account, Virginia would deposit a portion of a child’s funds from the state formula in a private bank account that parents would use to buy educational products and services for their children.

Virginia’s proposal is similar to laws enacted in Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Education savings accounts in these states allow families to use a child’s account to customize a child’s learning experience with online classes, private school tuition, curricular materials like textbooks, and, critically for children with special needs, educational therapy like speech and occupational therapy.

In Virginia, 13 percent of students—some 161,000 children—have special needs and could use an account to find educational services to help them succeed. As this blog has explained previously, Arizona families are hiring individual tutors to help children with autism, students who were struggling to learn basic skills prior to using an account. Others are combining public school extracurricular activities with home-based instruction, which gives children the chance to interact with their peers and learn in a setting that meets their needs. Such opportunities give hope to children and their parents.

Education savings accounts also provide lawmakers with a solution for large, statewide policy issues looming on the horizon.

Research from Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. at the Foundation for Excellence in Education finds that Virginia and Georgia have something in common: High age-dependency ratios. For Virginia, their score of +19 means the state has a “high percentage of people out of the workforce and a relatively small percentage of people trying to cover the costs of their education, retirement, and health care.”

The U.S. Census projects that Virginia’s public school enrollment will increase by 300,000 students over the next 15 years while the population of adults over 65 will almost double. The expansion in these two sectors will put a strain on taxpayer-funded services in education and health care.

Georgia finds itself in a similar position. Georgia’s +16 score is slightly below the national average of +17, but still points to a future where fewer people are pulling the cart of social programs and increasing numbers are sitting in the cart. The Census estimates Georgia’s student population will increase by a half-million students, while its elderly population will increase by nearly 1 million.

Education savings accounts and other private school choice options like tax credit scholarships (already available in Virginia and Georgia) will help ease the pressure on taxpayers who would be asked to pay for new district school buildings and public school staff. Parental choice in education comes at a significant discount compared to district school services. In Arizona, education savings accounts for children with special needs are worth 90 percent of what is spent on these children in traditional schools while, on average, mainstream students’ accounts amount to 50-60 percent of what taxpayers spend per child in district schools.

Virginia and Georgia badly need solutions like these. Education savings accounts improve the quality of life for participating families and can provide students with choices as the demands for public services increase.

Jonathan Butcher is education director at the Goldwater Institute and senior fellow at the Beacon Center of Tennessee.

Junior G.I. Scholarship: HOO- RAH!

As a military brat sacrifice was my middle name. My siblings and I spent many family events, recitals, school plays, family dinners and holidays without my dad. We became exceptionally good at packing up our lives every couple of years and starting over in a new place, including a new school. This often meant in the middle of the school year too.

In each duty station we faced new challenges such as making new friends, finding someone to eat lunch with in the school cafeteria, and most of all worrying if we would be ahead or behind in our studies as part of a new class.

My parents would spend hours discussing our education with new teachers in order to figure out what learning track or reading group we needed to be added to.

Today, Georgia legislators are considering a bill that would ease the burden on military families as they are often required to move to multiple areas and schools.

Sen. Hunter Hill has introduced Senate Bill 395, the “Junior G.I.” bill, to allow the children of veterans, active duty military, national guardsman, and reservists to attend the school of their parents’ choice – using the money the state is already spending on their education in their current public school.

Students would not have to attend public school in order to be eligible, allowing those just moving to military bases around the state of Georgia to also participate in the scholarship program.

As a now military wife and mom, I see the benefits a program would have had on my education over the years, but also the positive impact that this could have for my child.

The military does not just enlist the service member, but the whole family – including the children. Let’s show our support for our service members and their families by contacting state legislators in support of the Junior G.I. scholarship program.

Dancing A New Step in Education

The new year has begun, which means writing resolutions, reorganizing the closets, forced time in the gym and change. For many Georgia parents, the new year brings hope for the passage of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) and expansion of meaningful education choice.

It’s that hope that is bringing together more than 2,000 parents, students, educators and community leaders for the school choice rally at the Georgia State Capital on January 27th. The rally will take place at Liberty Plaza, next to the Georgia Capitol Building, to show support for allowing parents to decide how best to educate their children and to celebrate the options some families currently enjoy. The celebration is part of National School Choice Week’s nationwide spotlight on choice and empowering parents with the best education options to fit their children’s needs.

The program will begin at noon and feature student speakers, the National School Choice Week Dance, and a state proclamation declaring School Choice Week in Georgia.

In 2015 there were more than 11,000 events in support of choice throughout the United States, this year more than 13,000 schools, of all types, are participating in national celebrations around the country.

Join fellow Georgians later this month at the state’s capitol and show your support with the school choice dance. We want to see your moves!

Click here to watch dance video
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Click here to watch dance video

A Lesson in ESAs

Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) have dominated the school choice policy conversations as of late. However, many people are still unsure what ESAs truly offer, and some of the terminology can be confusing.

ESAs are similar to an Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) or a Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) in terms of the flexibility they provide but are used to pay for education expenses. A portion of the state’s allocated dollars that are already designated for each child’s public education are instead loaded onto a debit card that parents use to customize their child’s education. This money can be used for any educational resources including tutors, textbooks, private-school, homeschooling curriculum, and virtual learning.

Often these programs are confused with Coverdell Education Savings Accounts which are instead set up with personal money invested into tax-free accounts. These Funds can be used at any eligible educational institution whether that be elementary, secondary, or postsecondary. With a regular ESA, funds are coming from “legislative appropriations, local districts, and the federal government.

Several states have already implemented ESA programs. For example, Arizona offers ESAs to children with special needs, attending failing public schools, in the foster care system, or children of active-duty military. Nevada offers a universal ESA program, allowing all public school students the opportunity to obtain quality education in the environment that best fits his or her learning needs.

Parents know their child’s learning needs best, so they are best equipped to decide how these resources should be spent to ensure their child obtains a quality education. By having control over the money the state is already spending on their child, parents who were previously limited by income or geography, now have access to more educational options for their children. Parents can keep their child in their school if they’re happy with it, but ESAs give more options to parents who feel that their child’s current school environment isn’t meeting their needs.

You can learn even more about ESAs at