Georgia School Choice Advocates Are Not Going Down Without a Fight
Georgia school choice advocates are not going down without a fight. Some are going back to the legislative table and some are taking to the streets. On the other side of the coin, there are those who believe the Georgia Supreme Court got it right in Monday’s split decision opinion that sidelined the state charter schools commission.
Late Monday afternoon we learned a Senate sub-committee will be named to study the Supreme Court decision and propose fixes, perhaps this summer. “The thing we are counting on is the special session,” said Tony Roberts, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “That comes up in August.”
The year’s second General Assembly session could become hyper-hectic when lawmakers return to Atlanta to redraw legislative district lines, possibly try tax reform again, and now, just perhaps, an attempt to address charter schools questions created by the Supreme Court ruling.
And there are several questions, including how to keep funds flowing to existing schools and the impact on new schools that were scheduled to open this fall. The state commission planned to have 17 schools operating with as many as 16,500 students starting in August. Notably, the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein contains no effective date.
Supporters predict thousands will descend on the Washington Street side of the State Capitol on Tuesday morning to protest Monday’s 4-3 decision. Governor Nathan Deal is in Europe on a trade mission and the General Assembly is out of town but protestors, no doubt, will be easily heard at the Supreme Court which is just across the street from the Capitol.
Earlier, Roberts at GCSA described the decision as “bad news for thousands of children and parents in Georgia who hoped for a brighter future with their children in a Commission charter school. This is a case where the majority is NOT right. The minority opinion of the Supreme Court contained in the 75 pages of dissenting opinion is the one that is right.”
Schools are asking, what to do next? “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Matt Arkin, head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 online learning students. GCA was approved to become a state commission charter school this fall. “Until we hear otherwise we’re going to continue with our plans. The ruling today certainly has not changed that commitment.”
Monday’s opinion – filed seven months after oral arguments – said the General Assembly overstepped its bounds when it passed a 2008 state charter schools commission bill that was signed into law by Governor Sonny Perdue. The Supreme Court decision means state charters would not receive funding this fall, and perhaps sooner.
Mark Peevy, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission said his office is coordinating with the offices of Governor Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens, along with the State Board of Education, to understand the ruling and mitigate negative impacts.
“We will be working on a solution to help our current schools bridge the gap until we have that fix in place.” Peevy estimated that could cost $30 million-to-$40 million. Peevy admitted he does not have a great answer for parents who wonder what’s next. “The parent has to take a look at what they want to see happen with their child and move forward with those options.”
While crestfallen school choice and charter school supporters re-group, others view the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein as confirmation that House Bill 881 got it wrong three years ago.
“One thing that does seem clear is the Supreme Court has held the General Assembly may not create its own charter schools for the general K-12 population,” said attorney Tom Cox, who represented DeKalb County and the Atlanta Public Schools before the state Supreme Court.
“This has never been about the wisdom and viability of charter schools, at least speaking for my clients, Atlanta and DeKalb. They have approved and authorized and are currently operating within their districts more charter schools than any other district in Georgia,” Cox said. “This has always been about who makes the decision about which new charter schools will be approved.”
Georgia joins a short list of states whose highest courts rejected the creation of a state charter schools commission. The list consists of just Georgia and Florida. A challenge to the Florida Schools of Excellence closed the state charter commission closed before any schools opened.
Arkin at Georgia Cyber Academy remains optimistic. “Every state that ever had the appetite to do this has eventually done it. This is probably a hiccup toward the eventual solution. Now we just need to wait for some direction from the state Board of Education and from the governor to help us all make sure our students don’t get penalized.”
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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