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Statewide designation totals:

Charter systems: 47

Strategic waiver school systems: 131

Status quo: 2

Source: Georgia Department of Education

The state told Georgia school districts to decide by July 1 what path they will take toward the future.

They could remain "status quo," doing things as they have done for decades but with less funding, or they could take more control of their local schools by promising to produce specific results, which vary from system to system.

Districts choosing increased autonomy are given two options: A charter system or a strategic waiver school system.

Dana Rickman, policy and research director at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Atlanta, said schools' decisions on how to identify themselves moving forward will not create drastic changes for students returning to school this fall.

"We are really talking about [a change in] governance structures and not yet day-to-day stuff that affects the kids," Rickman said.

Calling yourself a charter system is not creating a cluster of charter schools. Instead, this system requires a specific charter — or contract — be made between the district and the Georgia Board of Education. This contract waives almost all current state rules and regulations, and requires districts to meet results specified in the contract.

The state's hands no longer control things such as curriculum, the allocation of funds or the number of teachers a school must employ. School governance is left up to the superintendent, the local board of education and a team of elected and appointed community members.

Within Georgia's 180 school districts, 47 chose to identify as charter systems.

Louis Erste, associate state superintendent at the Georgia Department of Education, said if a district's community already is or wants to be engaged in school-level decision-making, then a charter system is a good option. If the community does not wish to be as involved, then a strategic waiver school system is a better fit, and that is what 131 of Georgia's districts decided to be.

By choosing to be a strategic waiver school system, a district is tasked with creating an overarching strategic plan and a specific improvement plan for each school. These plans include following a majority of the Georgia Board of Education's established regulations and allowing districts to seek specific waivers for: class size, expenditure control, teacher certification or salary schedule.

Damon Raines, superintendent of Walker County Schools, said, "We are kind of forced into this decision to become a strategic waiver system."

He said the district would have preferred to remain "status quo," but that it would have been forced to forfeit several waivers it depends on financially.

"The new system gives us flexibility to do some things," Raines said. "But many of them we are already doing."

Calhoun City Schools was one of the first systems to designate itself as a charter system in 2011, according to Superintendent Michele Taylor.

"We are pleased with the progress that we've made as a charter system," Taylor said.

She said that operating under the system has provided greater opportunity for students and increased parental and community involvement in the schools.

The Fannin County school system decided this year to become a charter system for similar reasons, Superintendent Cynthia Panter said.

"We are a system that believes in local control, and we thought this option offers the best way to ensure that parents and community members play a vital role in the decision-making process," she said. "We already have a very supportive community and feel like their input will only make us a better school system."

Stephen Dolinger, president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said what makes this forced decision so irritating for school districts is that it is another unfunded mandate handed down from the state. Transitioning to either of these systems takes time and resources, he said, and the way the law was developed forces people into it.

"We are going to have to have some time to see if this reform strategy on changing the structure really helps," Dolinger said. "Sometimes the Achilles heel in education is changing leadership, and a new governor and legislature could change everything again."

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at 423-757-6592 or kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com.

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