January 2015: The cost of an education

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When you’re done reading Rebecca Burns’s story on Utopian Academy for the Arts, you may think what I did: I really hope this place succeeds, but man, I have no idea if it will. Such is the charter school bargain: You want to educate children by a different set of rules? Fine. You can hire your own teachers, but you’ll also have to find your own building. You can have a longer school day—heck, you can even hold classes on Saturdays—but don’t expect more money than the traditional public school down the road. In fact, in many cases, you should expect less.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

And then, ultimately, you’ve got to show results. And that means test scores. It means hitting graduation numbers. It means the same yardsticks that every school uses. And if you don’t do those things, if you don’t live up to the promises you made, then the charter is revoked, the school is closed, and the children are unmoored again.

Utopian opened just last fall. You might have heard about it; when parents arrived to drop off their kids for the first day of classes, the school had to turn them away. The city claimed there were problems with the occupancy permit. Can you imagine such a thing in a traditional public school? Welcome to Charter Realities 101.

Not long after classes finally began, Rebecca reached out to Artesius Miller, the school’s founder and executive director. Would the school open its doors to a writer and a photographer, so we can explore not just how you’re educating a couple of hundred Clayton County children, but why you think your way is better? Sure, Miller told us. Come on down.

Rebecca’s story may up-end some notions you had about charters. But if you’re like me, it will also reinforce an axiom of human civilization: There is no job more important than the education of a child, and no job as hard.

This article originally appeared in our January 2015 issue.

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