July 23, 2014

CCSD Says Charter Switch Means Funding, Flexibility

Philip Lanoue

By next fall, Clarke County schools could be operating as a charter district—meaning more community involvement, flexibility and autonomy. 

Superintendent Phil Lanoue recommended the move to the county board of education in June, and the current plan is to fast-track an application to the Georgia Department of Education by October. “We’ve been very innovative in our work and made tremendous gains, and we want to ensure we get to the next level,” Lanoue says. “I think the board is really receptive of this idea, and now the devil is in the details.”

More Local Control

The key features of a charter system are governance changes and accountability plans. It moves decision-making from the county board level to a governing body at the school level. Schools gain flexibility in areas such as teacher certification, class size, pay, course requirements and seat times in exchange for specific, rigorous goals to make student performance better. 

Thanks to Clarke County’s strategic plan and well-defined goals, the district is already “75 percent of the way there” with its application, says Lou Erste, director of the Georgia Department of Education’s Charter Schools Division. Erste and Lanoue recently discussed the application process and next steps.

“I’m extremely impressed with what the local board has supported in terms of programming, and I’m happy to see them get to this stage,” Erste says. “They’re pretty much as close to a charter system as they could get. They’re one of the closest to implement.”

By June 2015, all 180 school systems in the state must decide whether they will become a charter system, IE2 or status quo. The charter choice offers the most flexibility at the school level and freedom from state and federal requirements, but it requires the most accountability and above-average performance. "Investing in Educational Excellence" districts (nicknamed “IE2”) create a strategic plan similar to that of a charter but don’t use governing boards at the school level or receive as much flexibility. Status quo, or “traditional,” districts opt out of increased flexibility and must follow all state and federal education requirements. Charter and IE2 programs can draw additional state funding, which could mean $80–$90 per student in Clarke County, or close to $1 million.

Not Charter Schools

“The terms ‘charter systems’ and ‘charter schools’ can be confusing. I wish they were called ‘strategic systems,’” says state Rep. Brooks Coleman (R-Duluth), chairman of the House Education Committee. “It’s important for schools to have as much flexibility as possible as long as they do well. They need to have as little government control as possible, and we need to stay out of their way.”

The terms “charter school” and “charter district” are often seen as interchangeable, Coleman says, but they’re actually different. In this sense, “charter” simply means the document set up between the county district and state board of education that outlines how student achievement will be improved. Essentially, the schools are held accountable for upholding the terms of their contract. 

The schools in charter districts are still public schools, receive public funding, cannot charge tuition, must have open enrollment, must be secular and must serve all student populations, including those with disabilities and English language learners. Charter schools aren’t magnet schools or private schools. They can’t require admissions criteria and still must participate in statewide testing and federal health laws.

“We’ve done ourselves a disservice with the language we use, because people don’t know what it means, and it can be a roadblock,” says Wanda Creel, superintendent of Gainesville City Schools, which was one of the state’s first charter districts. Before Gainesville, Creel served as superintendent of Barrow County Schools when it applied for charter district status. 

“Change is difficult, and one of the greatest challenges is finding ways to communicate what being a charter district means to each stakeholder group,” she says. “You can never communicate it enough.”

In Barrow County, officials held open forums for parents and community members to ask questions. They also created videos for the district’s website that explained specific aspects of the charter district status.

To Creel, the biggest advantage is the governance structure and creating a “partnership with the community” at the school level. “I will never forget the time when we called the first principal we hired under charter district status. The students were the ones to call and welcome him,” she says. “Students were part of the interview process and had a direct impact on the choice. That’s just one example of breaking down barriers.”

This governance component—making individual schools more autonomous—is likely the biggest change and challenge for Clarke County’s application, Lanoue says. 

“It’s the more complicated piece to ensure we have autonomy at the school level but great connections to the strategic plan at the district level,” he says. “So far, the potential of this outweighs what I see as pitfalls, and after talking with Lou Erstes, I’m feeling this could really strengthen us as a district.”

During the next steps this summer, Clarke County Schools will work with state consultants in Erste’s department to complete the application. Sherrie Gibney-Sherman, a retired associate superintendent who helped Madison County develop its charter system application, will be part of the team.

Digital Learning

Technology will be a core feature of the application, Lanoue adds. The district will continue to emphasize “personalized learning systems” and “digital learning environments” in the classroom. This fall, students in third through eighth grades will be issued laptops for homework and classwork. The district is also piloting tools that allow teachers to create webpages, personalize content for students and deepen understanding through virtual case studies. 

“Our smartphones do more than a computer did five years ago,” Coleman says. “We’re encouraging schools to use the technology they have in as many ways as they can.”

Coleman’s House Education Committee traveled the state last year, holding eight public hearings and meeting with more than 1,800 teachers and administrators to talk about school needs and achievement. Technology came up again and again, he says. “It’s vital that we see all districts use technology, but we found some don’t have the bandwidth for it,” he says. “It’s critical that we provide that bandwidth as a state and help students to read, write and learn in a new way.”

Another key feature of the application will be the emphasis on neighborhoods, Lanoue says. “Our neighborhood schools are really important, and this could be a way for neighborhoods to highlight and bring out their uniqueness as the schools meet their target goals,” he says. “I see the potential of neighborhoods to take control and govern in their communities, and I’m excited about looking in that direction.”