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Education Reformer Star of the Week: Tony Roberts

• Georgianna Nutt

Growing up, Tony Roberts may not have been voted most likely to make a constitutional amendment happen in the face of massive opposition. But the very kid from Tennessee who years ago was lumped into the vocational track in high school did end up instrumental in Georgia’s charter school movement and the passage Georgia’s Amendment One. One year ago this month, it passed by public ballot, expanding access to charter schools so that more than 58,000 Georgia students can attain success in charter schools today.

Few things besides belief in the power of educational choice could explain Tony’s tenacious dedication to improving the options for children in Georgia. As it turns out, that’s the only explanation for how a defunct association went from bootstrapping it to a being a multi-purposed powerhouse in just a few years. In 2007, Tony joined the Georgia Charter School Association as President and CEO. Working out of a Starbucks in Atlanta, he believed in the power of intention and had the vision for GCSA to fill a void supporting charter schools in Georgia. He wore the multiple hats necessary to comprise an organization, starting by cobbling together financial support. Within the first year, he had worked through the first real battle for charters, resulting in the state legislature passing House Bill 881 which created a state commission to authorize charter schools and allowed equal and equitable student funding – thereby breaking the monopoly school districts had enjoyed to deny charters to their would-be competitors.

An opposition Tony couldn’t have imagined, having worked in Texas where charters and districts enjoy great cooperation on the whole, reared its ugly head. School districts sued the state in superior court to declare the authorizer illegal. When that failed, they appealed to the Supreme Court where the law was overturned. There was such virulence against charter schools that the lawsuit even called for the five charter schools which had already been authorized to be closed down.

It was clear that many Georgia entities were going to fight tooth and nail against the opportunities neighbors like Florida already had proved effective. Tony and a coalition of supporters, including many lawmakers, didn’t give up hope. The battle continued with House Resolution 1162 which would allow for the public to vote for a statewide charter school authorizing body on the November 2012 ballot. Uproar and outrage broke out: school districts classified the resolution as evil and unconstitutional, and the state superintendent, major media, and all but a handful of Democrats tried to squash it before it could reach the public. During the bloody process, some charter school teachers left their professional associations because of the contention. Not one school district dared speak up to support a public vote to allow charters to be authorized by the state. But through vigilance against the (sometimes illegal!) opposition, support from Governor Deal, and a democratic contingent who were brave enough to stand for the opportunity of charters that they believed in, the Georgia Charter School Association shared in a major victory when Amendment One passed by public decree. Charters finally gained a chance to make it through a fair authorization process by the State Charter Commission.

Analysis of the public ballot vote confirmed a broad and diverse base for support. Amendment One was adopted with 59% approval–earning nearly 100,000 more votes than Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

On a personal level for Tony Roberts, it’s important to be clear that he does not believe the charter school movement is a silver bullet to the diverse challenges in education, but part of a solution which can allow innovation in schooling to help on a larger scale. His good news is charters’ ability to provide more individualization for the unique needs of each student. The possibilities for individualization are many: Georgia has just seen its first charter school dedicated to the arts approved – a place where students can be enthused about their passions, and learn science too. In Tony’s own home school district, where great schools are the norm, he’s often presented with the question of why charters would be necessary if public school is working. His answer? Some students still fail! He believes that a variety of options other than just private schools are an invaluable resource for all families and communities.

The Georgia Charter School Association’s portfolio of involvement has become quite ambitious considering humble beginnings, and includes grassroots organizing, fundraising, and legal, policy and coalition support. This expansion is attributable to the unique talent of Tony Roberts to identify and meet need. When school districts bristled at the challenge charters presented to their status quo and sued the state, he identified the need for legal support and GCSA began to engage on that front. He has pioneered an alternative certification program for teachers and partnered with Kennesaw State University to create a Masters Degree program in Charter School Administration.

Tony has his work cut out for him but he’s not alone on the job. He’s reactivating a broad and varied coalition which includes members from young republicans to African American ministers, and groups of parents and teachers. He believes the power of intention makes things happen, and that his job is to provide vision and cobbled resources. He also believes that GCSA appeared at the right place and the right time to meet the state’s demand for opportunity. And that demand is still growing. Which is a good thing since in the next two years, there are expected to be numerous challenges for Georgia charter schools to overcome including funding issues (the state’s education funding formula hasn’t been changed since the ’80s), facilities issues, and continued vigilance to ensure quality by strengthening accountability for the State Charter Commission.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education points to charter schools as a vital component of the reforms which have led to unprecedented student success in Florida. There, charter schools have seen staggering results compared with traditional school counterparts with more students of every demographic are reading and performing math on grade level. The Georgia Charter School Association’s Tony Roberts is confident that if you provide a vision and show that good results will come of it, people will follow you. Get on board, Georgia!

About the author

Georgianna Nutt