DIY Charter Schools

Here’s the thing: there’s more than one way to skin a charter school.

There are two kinds of charter schools – start-up charters (which is what most everyone on this blog and the AJC blog references) and conversion charters. Further, thanks to former state senator Dan Weber, it is also possible to start a conversion charter cluster.

Conversion charters do not have to worry finding about a facility. Conversion charters do not have to budget for maintenance, repairs and utilities. Conversion charters do not have to worry about meeting payroll.

This means conversion charters can focus solely on educating their students.

Like all charter schools a conversion charter begins with a plan, a proposal and a petition to the local school board. Begin by going here for answers to general questions about charter schools. Parents and community members should go here for answers to their questions while new petitioners will find answers to their questions here. Finally, be sure to look at this PowerPoint presentation, “So You Want To Start A Charter School?” from the Georgia Department of Education.

Charter schools are tax-supported public schools, but with the autonomy, flexibility and accountability that traditional public schools lack. Charter schools are governed, not by a local board of education, but by an autonomous non-profit board of directors or governance council, and they receive flexibility from certain state and local rules and regulations in exchange for a higher level of accountability. Charter school that don’t meet the terms of their charter and fail to successfully educate students can be closed. When was the first, last or any other time that you saw a traditional public school closed for failing to educate its students?

A charter school can and should specify, in its charter, all the things that will positively affect student education – including selecting the school’s administrators and staff. Remember, teachers and administrators do not sign a contract for a specific school; their contracts are with DeKalb County Schools generally. A charter school’s board or governance council may handle all hiring, budgeting, planning and policy-making or it may delegate some of those responsibilities to the administrative team they hired.

Conversion charter schools, like start-up charters may obtain a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS. Conversion charters may also set up a foundation, also designated a 501(c)(3) entity and attached to the school, to accept donations and to hold grant funding, if any is obtained.

Interested in working with other parents, with teachers and with community members to explore the possibility of converting your neighborhood traditional school to a charter school? Maybe you are interested in turning your cluster into a charter cluster? We have heard a few particularly good ideas that involve an entire cluster. Here are the guidelines to starting a charter school.

Converting your neighborhood school to a charter school is the way to take back our schools.

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18 Responses to DIY Charter Schools

  1. tenbsmith says:

    Could a school like lakeside high school become a conversion charter?

  2. Concernedmom30329 says:

    Yes. But Lakeside would have to have the agreement of the school system. The passage of the charter school amendment does not impact conversion schools, per Jan Jones the author of the legislation. At the meeting I attended, she was clear that GA school systems own their buildings and the state can’t dictate their usage. (She mentioned that a few years ago, the Legislature passed a law that empty school system buildings have to be made available to charters. However, no system has ever been taken to court by a charter to force the issue. There is no way of knowing the outcome of such a case, because the systems really do own their buildings.)

    However, Rep Ed Lindsey is preparing to introduce a parent trigger law in the upcoming legislation session. While multiple states have this law, it has only been used once, mostly because it was litigated in California and the case was just decided.

    Maureen Downey blogged about it. It has the potential to be far more impactful than the charter amendment to DeKalb.

  3. Edugator says:

    So Peachtree and Chamblee are conversion charters. How exactly have they differentiated? Both were doing pretty well before, and both have the same issues everyone else does with crowded classes and a test-happy administration. Parental involvement was already high. It all sounds so lovely, but it seems to be much ado about nothing.

  4. The key thing with a conversion charter is to hold the line on charter provisions. Understand that the principal works for you — not the other way around. If the conversion charter school is meeting the requirements of its charter, there is no reason to allow the principal and school system officials to bully the Governance Council into weakening the charter simply to get another 5-year approval. Yes, parents are involved at Chamblee. But, they must also stand up for what is right concerning the charter. It is difficult to convince parents of this because for so long they have kowtowed to whatever the principal and the school system officials demanded. But, this is a new day and with the majority of DeKalb County School System being a failure of epic proportions, it is unlikely that school system officials (and the principal who is parroting school system officials) will have much, if any, credibility.

  5. ursokm16 says:

    Thanks for bringing these options to our attention. My hope would be that passing the new law would have some impact on the number of conversion charters attempted and approved locally. Can you clarify if the new state commission can overturn a local decision on conversion charters (or indeed has anything to say about conversion charters) or perhaps more importantly can place a deadline on the delay tactics that school systems use?
    Conversion charters in traditional neighborhood schools would truly meet the intent of “community” charter schools–as they are already an important part of the fabric of neighborhoods.

  6. dekalbite2 says:

    The principals of the conversion charter schools report to the area superintendents and basically they are under the same rules as any other administrator in the DeKalb School system. There is no appreciable difference since the administration of the conversion charter is expected to follow the directions of the school system and can be replaced at will by the Central Office. This is why little to no change at the classroom level is seen in conversion charters.

  7. Marney Mayo says:

    I’ve been at this too long and know that if anyone–start-up or conversion stands up too tall, they will be hammered down over time. Given the degree of autonomy “granted” by the board and administration in DeKalb, there really aren’t any conversions with any autonomy that is meaningful–or that couldn’t function as well and with less paperwork if they simply had a strong PTA, school council, and smart individual waivers. As to start-ups…the principals must attend all the regular “commanded” meetings, additional charter ones by the district, and they prepare the necessary budgets and reports for their own non-profit boards, and the state annual reports and their own independent audits besides everything expected of traditional school house administration. There are no waivers of testing mandates or anything federal, health, safety, etc.

    Now you ARE allowed to do “extra”…but certainly no extra money is going to help you.
    Don’t tell me that the amendment is going to change all this…try running a real school in the metro area on the amount of money equivalent to that of the 5 poorest districts in the state.

    First they will wade through the next lawsuit over the wording of the preamble. Then the fight in the legislature to increase funding..then the 2 year time line to petition and open…meanwhile our children are getting older and our prisons are filling up.

  8. wondering says:

    I think you are overstating the case about conversion charters. I have one kid at a DCSS conversion charter and one kid at a DCSS non-charter. There is really no difference.

    Sure the charter has a nice document that talks a lot about all the great things that will happen there — but it is fiction, because the school gets the SAME AMOUNT of points as the non-charter schools. So it doesn’t really matter if the charter says each kid must have art, music and foreign language — the points aren’t there for those teachers to be hired so it doesn’t happen.

    About the only thing that the charter really does is allow for uniforms, which I like. However, again, that is not really enforced. While the majority of our students do wear the uniforms, there are a few who don’t (because the parents don’t want them to) and so they don’t have to. It’s not like the school can kick them out — it’s a public school, and even though the charter says that students can be transferred to another DCSS school if the family does not comply with the charter, the county has told the school that they may not actually enforce this.

    I understand the rationale of this because DCSS has to provide a public education to each student in the county, and it doesn’t really have the money to be busing students to non-charter schools outside their neighborhood simply b/c the parents won’t buy them uniforms, or comply with the volunteer hours requirements or whatever. So the result is that the charter is essentially meaningless.

  9. psdad says:

    I tend to agree Wondering and Dekalbite2 and would even go as far as to state that conversion charters don’t offer anywhere near the benefit of a start-up charter. Do some research on the history at Chamblee High School and you will see some great examples of how a conversion charter is subject to the whim of the central office just like every other traditional school in the system. Start-up starters interview and hire administrators and teachers, enrollment for start-up charters extends beyond the natural attendance area only when there is space to accommodate additional students, start-up charters are not required to accept students that would put them beyond targeted capacity. Conversely, conversion charters have no control over the selection of teachers or school administrators, enrollment extends beyond the natural attendance area (to accommodate school state or federal programs), and conversion charters must accept students from outside natural attendance area, even if they are currently beyond capacity (again see Chamblee). In short, a conversion charter doesn’t disconnect you from the oppression of this incompetent central office and (mostly) incompetent school board.

    As for the comment about a 501(c)(3) designation from the IRS… any local PTA can (and should) set-up a separate foundation, also designated a 501(c)(3) entity and attached to the school PTA (not the school), to accept donations and to hold grant funding, if any is obtained. This is not a unique benefit of being a Charter School.

  10. abc123 says:

    Need a job? There are many vacancies mid-year in the school system. 50 schools have positions.
    Check it out. Many, many people are leaving in the middle of the school year due to a new law concerning TRS which becomes effective December 30, 2012. Not all of the openings are listed yet. Employess have to retire by November 30, 2012 to be compliant with the new legislation. Therefore, December 1st will be the start date for these positions. I am sure that people will be leaving for other reasons too.

  11. DeKalb Inside Out says:

    Those differences you pointed out are VERY important to know and not common knowledge. Are the points you made due to the type of charter, just the way that charter was written, or just the way that charter is enforced?

    With the “parent trigger” coming up, we should start ramping up our knowledge of these various types of charters. Is there a webpage I can go to that lists the points you made? Most definitions of charter types don’t go into that much detail.

    Thanks for any help you can provide!

  12. Kate says:

    We are thinking about doing a conversion charter for our elementary school which was deeply affected by the budget cuts this year. After reading all of these comments, it doesn’t feel like it will really work for us. 😦

    What are the charter clusters about? Where can I get more information about them?

  13. Concernedmom30329 says:

    Conversion charters don’t get additional funding. They may be able to negotiate flexibility within their staffing, for example, having two part time people that teach two different things instead of one part time person.
    I am skeptical of the charter cluster idea. I have a friend in Dunwoody and she says it is rife with all the same challenges of the conversion. Until we have the power to hire our own school leaders, much of this is probably not worth the work.

  14. We completely agree ConcernedMom. The ONLY way to improve the results of our education system is to divide the system into a minimum of three separate systems – each with a reasonably paid Super, a small CO staff and an elected, all volunteer board.

  15. Marney Mayo says:

    @Kate…when a charter starts it is allowed to apply for an implementation grant, which used to be allowed to be up to $200K for a conversion. This is the only money above the regular “points” for conversions and “earned FTE” for start-ups that you get. In the beginning conversions were the only type that the law allowed (I think the establishment didn’t want to see all those $$ going to other states). At that time, many energized and well organized schools went after one, both for the $$ and the perception of autonomy (either from the central office or state rule or regs that might be waived). Many of those same schools either didn’t renew when the $$ were spent or the state told them that what they were doing differently really wasn’t different enough (or their academics declined). A few continued either because there is a certain “cachet” to having the adjective in your school’s name or because there is a practical need to fill the building and “If you call it charter, they will come.”

    But the bar on getting a charter is set much higher now and the implementation grants are much more competitive. I would ask yourself “what is our vision of how we seek to be different for the next 5 years?”.

  16. Kate — there is a plus side and a minus side to everything. Please do your own research and talk with parents at DCSS conversion charter schools about their experience. It’s not easy to open a conversion charter school — it’s not for the weak of heart. You need to have a team of people with a variety of professional skills who are willing to work with you — and work diligently and hard — with no salary, to get a conversion charter off-the-ground and approved. $200,000 doesn’t go that far as you will see when you create a budget. But, it is even more difficult and much more risky (in our opinion) to go for an independent start-up charter. The need for money — operating funds for start-up charters — is unrelenting. And it is a whole lot harder to come by grant funding for independent start-up charters these days given the current economic climate. Unless, of course, you are one of the “favored” DCSS start-ups run by and for “Friends-and-Family.” In that case, you can provide incomplete documents, miss deadlines and ask for additional monies without fear of being turned down.

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