Will Parents or Politicians Decide Georgia Charter Schools Future?
Last week’s State Capitol hearing about whether voters should be allowed to decide school choice in Georgia had nearly concluded when this final question was posed: In the event that no constitutional amendment is passed, and no other action is taken by the General Assembly, would the state be unable to intervene in any local school board decisions that are deemed to be harmful to children?
The answer in a moment, but first here is some perspective. Georgia thought it decided one aspect of school choice four years ago when the General Assembly created a charter schools commission, but last spring the state Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional in a 4-to-3 opinion. That vote has placed literally thousands of students in jeopardy; they could lose their charter schools.
Georgia Cyber Academy is the state’s largest blended learning charter; it has 10,000 students who live in all but two of the state’s 159 counties. In theory, Georgia Cyber could be forced to apply for individual charters from every county. Currently, the Cyber Academy is operating as a state special school.
Ivy Preparatory Academy recently had its 2012 charter request rejected by the Gwinnett County local board. The Fulton County local school board rejected Fulton Science Academy, which received a 2011 National Blue Ribbon School Award from the U.S. Department of Department of Education. Ivy Prep and Fulton Science would need state special school charters to open again next fall.
House Resolution 1162 seeks to reinstate the state’s ability to authorize charter schools, and it would also create a vehicle to direct state funds to support those students. The chief sponsor for HR 1162 is House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who also was chief sponsor of the charter school bill four years ago.
Last Thursday Jones told a near overflow committee hearing room that the state has 29,000 students in startup charter schools, a pittance among the 1.6 million total public school pupils statewide. “To say we want that kind of framework is simply not to be in support of charter schools,” Jones said. Click here to view the House TV video archive.
The proposed constitutional amendment has adamant supporters and opponents. Supporters must gain two-thirds approval in both the Senate and House to get the amendment onto the November ballot. Opponents can prevail if HR 1162 comes up just one vote shy in the Senate or House, meaning voters would not get to decide this school choice question in Georgia.
As to the question that began this discussion – what might happen if no action is taken – here was the powerful response from House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey who also is a co-sponsor of HR 1162:
“Quite frankly, we worked very hard with a lot of legal scholars who said (charter schools commission legislation) was constitutional. Three justices agreed with us and one of them wrote a damn fine 75-page minority decision that I ask all of you to read,” Lindsey said.
“The fact of the matter is, what’s contained in that decision needs to make anyone who is concerned about any of the state reform packages that we’ve passed, or any of these state initiatives that we have, including teacher pay scales and everything else, it better give you pause because the language is expansive. The language does say that basically our job is to write a check and shut up, and I’m not even sure that we should be writing a check.
“You may have some very distinguished attorneys out there who say, oh, it’s not that broad, it only applies narrowly. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you, we had an awful lot of good legal scholars who told us four years ago that HB 881 was perfectly constitutional.
“The best way not to have to deal with that issue is to pass this constitutional amendment. I’ve had some folks tell me, well, let’s just pass legislation and try to fix what the Supreme Court says. Well, here’s the problem. You’re going to end up with three more years of litigation before the case gets back to the Supreme Court and then we find out again,” Lindsey said.
“And in that meantime, we’re going to spend three years with different organizations around the state, different parents around the state not certain whether the charter school they are sending their children to is constitutional in terms of the funding as opposed to clearing that up right now.
“I’ve been a litigator for 27 years. This is a piece of advice I give to all my clients. The best lawsuit is one that we don’t have to file because we come up with some a resolution to avoid a case. You’re only in court because you have no other alternative,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey held up the HR 1162 resolution. “This or some version that we come up with because we work our way through it together, is the alternative to paying a lot of lawyers on both sides a lot of money and leaving children and their parents uncertain for three years. To do the alternative is, my opinion, irresponsible.”
Organizations that testified in favor of HR 1162 include the Council for an Educated Georgia, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, 100 Dads, Georgia Charter Schools Association, and the Georgia chapter of the Students First organization. Organizations that opposed the bill include the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, Georgia School Boards Association, Georgia School Superintendents Association, and the Georgia Education Coalition.
(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)
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