The future of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission will be decided soon in one of the most highly anticipated decisions from the current state Supreme Court term.
A source close to the case said Monday, March 28 is when the Court is likely to decide whether the Commission and its funding authority are constitutional. The Court has not announced an opinion date, but a spokesperson said the ruling could come “at any time” before the end of this month.
The ramifications are large for schools, students and also state legislators who might need to scramble to re-address the charter schools commission concept before the General Assembly adjourns. One observer who has skin in this game said Friday, “I am nervous, very nervous.”
Here’s the background. Three years ago the General Assembly created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission as a tiny island inside the state Department of Education. It can approve charter school applications that were rejected by local boards and determine funding levels.
Seven public school systems filed suit in Fulton County. They asked the trial court to decide first, did the General Assembly overreach in 2008 when it created the state Charter Schools Commission; and, second, did legislators overreach when they gave the Commission authority to divert federal and state dollars from school systems to new state-authorized charter schools?
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob heard three hours of arguments last May 7. Shoob delivered an immediate decision on behalf of the Commission. Her ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court. The seven public school systems who filed suit to shut down the Commission are Atlanta, Gwinnett, DeKalb, Bulloch, Candler, Griffin-Spalding and Henry.
The case went before the Supreme Court on October 12. Attorneys for the seven districts said the charter schools funding formula deprives them of local tax revenue dollars that should be allocated to traditional public schools. A deputy attorney general who argued on behalf of the state and the Commission countered that the districts were not being deprived of local tax dollars.
An attorney familiar with the case said the Supreme Court has essentially four options. First; affirm the Commission and the funding concept. Second; strike down the Commission and the funding model. Third; affirm the Commission but reject the funding model. Fourth; affirm the funding model but reject the Commission. The fourth option is considered the least likely.
Complete rejection by the Supreme Court could place some 16,500 elementary, middle and high school students in jeopardy this fall. That is next year’s anticipated enrollment at 17 traditional and virtual schools that will operate under the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.
“Obviously, worst case, if they rule the entire concept unconstitutional, I’m hopeful legislators and the state superintendent would find a way for schools like GCA and the others to continue to serve these students and not throw them out on the streets,” said Matt Arkin, head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 students and expects 8,500 next fall.
The highest courts in other states have ruled in several similar cases. Missouri justices decided against the Kansas City school district challenge to the state charter schools act. Colorado justices refused to hear a challenge brought by the Boulder Valley school district. A challenge to the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission succeeded and the Commission closed.
Attorney Bruce Brown represents the charter schools. Brown emphasized that rulings by other state courts are not a good predictor for Georgia. “The thing about this kind of issue is that it is extremely specific to the state,” Brown said. “Unlike cases in the federal system, what Missouri or Florida does with its systems is not of much interest here and our Court knows that. It’s not that they would be inclined to follow Missouri or Florida or anybody else.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)
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