Lieutenant governor offers school reform package

ATLANTA - Allowing school districts in Georgia to become charter systems would give teachers, administrators and parents flexibility to best meet the needs of their students, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said Thursday.

Speaking at Tech High School, a charter school in Atlanta, Cagle said he would support legislation in the Senate in the coming weeks to let whole school systems convert to charters, an option now available only to individual schools. As lieutenant governor, he is the Senate's presiding officer.

"We've experienced great successes with charter schools, primarily because ... they're structured from the bottom up instead of the top down,'' Cagle said.

"Teachers, principals and superintendents come together to design their curriculum around the needs of individual students and systems.''

The charter schools initiative is one of two education reform proposals Cagle touted on the campaign trail last year and again last week in speeches after being sworn in as the state's first Republican lieutenant governor.

He also is pushing to expand Georgia's "career academies,'' high schools that emphasize career and technical education, working in partnership with local businesses and technical colleges.

Charter schools are becoming increasingly popular in Georgia. Currently, 57 are operating across the state, up from 35 during the 2002-03 school year.

State statistics show that students in charter schools achieve higher test scores than their peers, and a higher percentage graduate.

State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said several counties have converted most of their schools to charters, but the process is cumbersome because each school has to apply individually with the state for charter designation.

"We want systems to really ask the question, 'Could our whole system perform better as a charter system?' '' she said.

Under Cagle's bill, city or county school districts awarded system-wide charter status would be exempt from state education mandates and some federal requirements.

In exchange for the added flexibility, they would be held to specific achievement standards. The state Department of Education could pull their charter if they fail to perform at or above those standards.

"This idea of high flexibility and high accountability I've championed for a long time,'' said Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, chairman of the House Education Committee, who attended Thursday's announcement.

Along with the legislation, Cagle is asking the General Assembly for $625,000 in planning and incentive money to help launch five charter school systems.

The lieutenant governor also is looking for $1 million in startup costs for five career academies and $15 million in bonds for construction.

"Eighty percent of tomorrow's work force will need some technical training,'' Cagle said. "It's imperative that we get students at an earlier age on a technical path.''

Cox said several career academies already operating across Georgia are providing a model for Cagle's initiative, including schools in Newnan and Conyers.

She said expanding the program would help keep more Georgia teenagers in school.

"The key to reducing our dropout rate is to make sure kids have viable options,'' she said. "They don't have a lot of choices in traditional high schools.''