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Governor Deal Improves State Special Charter Schools Funding

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal has approved a financial rescue package that will significantly improve state funding for eight former brick-and-mortar state commission charter schools.  The schools were notified Thursday in an email from the state Department of Education.

Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, was elated when he heard the news:  “Governor Deal said at the beginning of this crisis that he was going to take care of the children in these schools and he really made it happen by encouraging the state superintendent to have a streamlined approval process for state special charter schools and now he has seen to it that those schools get full funding.”

What this means on a practical level is eight brick-and-mortar schools that were uncertain about their 2011-2012 financials can open next month assured of funding levels that they would have received from the now defunct Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  The state Supreme Court ruled the commission was unconstitutional in a widely controversial May decision.

“The state will forward fund the bricks-and-mortar state-chartered special schools for an amount equal to the average local share they would have received if they were locally approved,” said Louis Erste, charter schools division director at the state Department of Education, adding that will bring revenue to “the same amount they would have received as a locally-approved charter school in their approved attendance zone.”

Those eight brick-and-mortar schools are Atlanta Heights Charter in Atlanta, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro, Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton, Coweta Charter Academy in Senoia, Fulton Leadership Academy in south Fulton County, Heritage Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Odyssey School in Newnan and Pataula Charter Academy in Edison.

Governor Nathan Deal

“We don’t know the exact dollar figure at this point,” said Erin Hames, Governor Deal’s deputy chief of staff for policy, “but (the Governor’s Office) had to make a quick decision because some of these schools were set to meet tomorrow to determine whether they could keep their doors open this fall.”

Roberts said it is his understanding the cost to the state is uncertain.  Mark Peevy, former executive director of the defunct charter schools commission, had estimated about $10 million.  But since Peevy made that estimate this spring two schools – Heron Bay Academy and Provost Academy – decided they will not open until the 2012 – 2013 school year.

Roberts also said he believes this is a one-year fix: “There is no commitment that this will continue beyond this first year.”   The decision to improve funding for brick-and-mortar state charter schools does not impact the online learning state charter special schools such as Georgia Cyber Academy and Georgia Connections Academy.

Two brick-and mortar schools – Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County and the Museum School of Avondale Estates in DeKalb County – accepted local school district charters.

Ivy Prep and Museum School funding already includes local share dollars for their students who reside in the counties that granted charters.  To illustrate how complicated this has become; Ivy does not have full funding guaranteed for students who reside outside Gwinnett County.  That is still unresolved.  Ivy draws students from several metro counties, including DeKalb.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

July 14, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Immediate Hurdles Gone, Are Georgia Special Schools on Safe Ground?

Mike Klein

After six weeks of angst, most but not all former state commission charter schools will be back in business this August now that the state Board of Education has thrown them a life preserver.

Nine schools received two-year state special school charters and two had their local district charters affirmed Tuesday morning.  Two other schools received state board approval earlier this month and two or possibly three others are not expected to open this fall.

Truth be told, there were no surprises after the state Department of Education said Monday that eleven schools would be recommended for approval.  But there was substantial relief and a sense the pressure is off just six weeks after the state Supreme Court overturned the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, tossing 16 schools and 15,000 students into educational peril.

“Their futures were settled today,” said a relieved looking state schools Superintendent John Barge.  “We’re happy,” said Stephanie Reid, board chair at the Georgia Connections Academy online learning school which expects 900 students in August.  “It’s an important hurdle,” said Georgia Charter Schools Association executive vice president Andrew Lewis.

Clearing immediate hurdles does not clear the playing field.  All sides recognize there is always the possibility that a lawsuit could be filed to challenge the legality of state special charter schools.  “At this point our legal folks feel confident that we are on safe grounds,” Barge said.

The state special charters authorized on Tuesday are designed to bridge the next two school years that begin in August and end in May 2013.  Several other next steps will seek to clarify the authorization and funding steps for future charter schools that do not have local authorization.

First, the General Assembly is expected to consider placing a constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot that would ask voters to override the Supreme Court decision.  The net result would be to legitimize a state commission that could authorize charter schools and allow local property tax dollars to follow the pupil, even if local school boards disagree with the authorization.

Second, Governor Nathan Deal’s office and the General Assembly have begun a top-to-bottom review of how the state should fund public schools.  The vehicle is a special commission created by the 2011 General Assembly. The bill that created the commission calls for a two-year study, but some legislators would like to finish sooner.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will help.

All nine charter schools approved Tuesday will receive between $2,700 to $4,400 in state and federal dollars, but no local property tax dollars.  The same is true for the Georgia Cyber Academy / Odyssey School combination which the board approved a couple weeks ago.

The state board also affirmed local school district charters granted by Gwinnett County to Ivy Preparatory Academy and by DeKalb County to The Museum School of Avondale Estates.  Those two schools are eligible for state and federal dollars, and also local property tax dollars.  Ivy Prep originally rejected Gwinnett’s charter before later deciding to accept it.

“The bottom line for us was we wanted to make a decision that was in the best interests of the kids,” said Christopher Kunney, who is vice chairman of the Ivy Preparatory Academy board.  “Regardless of the history with Gwinnett, regardless of what was pending or not pending or proposed, we had to think about opening a school in the fall.”

State brick-and-mortar special charter schools approved Tuesday are Atlanta Heights Charter in Atlanta, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro, Cherokee Charter in Canton, Coweta Charter in Senoia, Fulton Leadership in Atlanta, Heritage Preparatory in Atlanta and Pataula Charter in Edison.  Two digital online learning schools were approved, Georgia Connections Academy and Provost Academy.

Chattahoochee Hills Charter in south Fulton decided it will not try to open in August.  Peachtree Hope Charter in DeKalb County recently split ways with its education management partner and Peachtree will need to submit a new application to the state board, possibly next month.

Tuesday’s meeting was also the symbolic last breath for the Georgia Charter Schools Commission that will officially fade to black on Thursday when the state fiscal year ends.  Mark Peevy, the outgoing and only executive director, has been trying to place four staff members into other state positions. Peevy said he does not have anything new lined up for himself.

There was no cake, but there were many folks saying thanks.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

June 28, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bill Clinton to Address Charter Schools Conference Tuesday in Atlanta

Mike Klein

Former President Bill Clinton will headline Tuesday’s opening session of the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference in Georgia where the state has become a national battleground over alternative authorization of public charter schools.  The 42nd President will receive the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award and deliver an acceptance speech to 4,000 attendees.

It is entirely coincidental that the year’s biggest annual charter schools conference is being hosted in Atlanta about one mile from the state Supreme Court.  Last month a one-vote majority of the state high Court’s seven justices declared that the state Charter Schools Commission is unconstitutional, ending a three-year experiment with alternative authorization.

Implications from the Georgia Supreme Court decision and the path forward will be discussed Tuesday afternoon during a conference session in the Sidney Marcus Auditorium.  Scheduled panelists include Georgia House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones who was the chief sponsor of 2008 legislation that created the state Charter Schools Commission.

Speaking off-the-record, two sources who are familiar with behind the scenes events said the combination of new charters with acceptable funding will probably not happen for some schools that received 2011– 2012 year approval from the state Charter Schools Commission.  Sixteen schools that planned to enroll as many as 16,000 students were affected by the Court’s opinion.

Former President Bill Clinton

Georgia Cyber Academy and its brick-and-mortar cousin Odyssey School received state board of education charters on June 9.  DeKalb County offered one-year temporary charters to The Museum School of Avondale Estates and Peachtree Hope Charter School.  Ivy Preparatory Academy turned down a Gwinnett County charter because of unequal funding.  The state board is expected to vote next Tuesday on charter applications from any schools that still want one.

Thousands have traveled to stifling hot and humid Atlanta for the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference at the Georgia World Congress Center.  Former President Clinton will be honored for kick starting the public charter schools movement.  The number of public charter schools grew from one prior to his 1992 election to more than 2,000 during his Presidency.

Tuesday morning’s general session will include musical performances by eighth grader Mariana Guzman from Ivy Prep Academy in Georgia and Pride Percussion ensemble which represents Pine Lake Preparatory, the largest charter school in North Carolina.  Other Tuesday speakers are Success Charter Network founder Eva Moskowitz and Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will appear by teleconference Wednesday. This year Georgia will receive the first of four $100 million annual Race to the Top grants from the U.S. DOE which approved Georgia in part because of leadership in the charter schools movement.

Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman will also speak Wednesday and the Junior Academy Dance Ensemble of Atlanta’s Drew Charter School will perform.  The conference will conclude with a rally Thursday morning at the State Capitol.

Click here to learn more about the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

June 20, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Supreme Court Rejects Charter Schools Reconsideration Motion

Mike Klein

The Georgia Supreme Court has served the future of former state commission charter schools over the net and back into the Legislature’s court.  This morning the Court announced that it will not review last month’s decision that overturned the three-year-old state commission.

“The majority of the Georgia Supreme Court has just found 16,000 innocent children in Georgia guilty of choosing a better education,” said Georgia Charter Schools Association chief executive officer Tony Roberts.  “And even worse, the justices have sentenced them to failing or inadequate schools.”

This morning’s announcement comes exactly one week before Atlanta hosts the four-day-long National Charters Schools annual conference.  Former President Bill Clinton will keynote the Tuesday session and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is scheduled on Wednesday.

Attorney General Sam Olens petitioned the Supreme Court to reconsider its May 16 decision, but in a single sentence released Monday the Court said, “Upon consideration of the motion for reconsideration in this case, it is ordered that it be hereby denied.”  No other reason was given.  The motion was considered a long shot because the Court seldom grants reconsideration.

Sixteen brick-and-mortar and online learning schools have scrambled to secure new local or state special school charters, along with funding, since the Supreme Court decision four weeks ago today.  The Court ruled the state could not grant commission charters to schools that had already had been turned down by local boards of education.

Last week the state Board of Education approved special school charters for Odyssey School in Newnan, and for Georgia Cyber Academy which expects to enroll 8,500 online learners this fall. Several schools have applied to districts for temporary local charters.  The state board is expected to meet again this month to consider charters for schools that still need them.

The next step likely returns this question to the Legislature.

Governor Nathan Deal’s office, along with House and Senate education committee members, have begun work to place a constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot that would seek permission for the state to authorize and fund charter schools.  The General Assembly would most likely consider this question next January.

All Georgia charter schools are public schools.  The former commission schools expected to enroll 16,000 of the state’s 77,000 total charter schools students when class resumes in August.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

June 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Step Forward and Long Road Ahead for Georgia Commission Schools

Mike Klein

Get ready.  Get set.  Go back to (your favorite charter) school.

Now that they’ve been thrown a parachute, what’s next for a handful of former state commission charter schools and nearly 16,000 students?  The search for that answer leads to other questions:  Do you mean sooner or later?  And, would Georgia voters be inclined to embrace the idea charter schools might help the state overcome its mediocre education reputation?

“I’ve been called a lot of things in life.  This is the first time I’ve been called unconstitutional,” Mark Peevy said during his testimony at Friday morning’s Senate education sub-committee hearing.  Peevy is executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which the state Supreme Court threw out in a decision announced last month.

Senate and House legislators, the state Department of Education, commission schools, parent groups and the Georgia Charter Schools Association have worked for three weeks to clear a path that would enable all 16 state commission charter schools to reopen this August.

“There is no reason why we can’t take care of this quickly,” state schools superintendent John Barge said Friday.  It was his first public event statement since the Supreme Court decision.

Here’s what you can expect over the next several weeks.  Some brick and mortar commission schools have applied to receive one-year charters from local districts.  This recognizes time is short and shuttering these schools is not good for students and it is terrible public relations.

Standing Room Only Friday at Senate Education Hearing on State Commission Charter Schools

“It’s not good when you make the New York Times for the wrong reasons,” Senate education chair Fran Millar told hundreds who attended Friday’s hearing.  “We’ve got to find a way to make this thing work.  We’re being looked at by the world to see how we deal with this situation.”

Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cherokee county school systems are working closely with commission schools.  The state Board of Education will meet this month to vote on granting special school status to other schools that still need charters.  That would include the online learning schools.

“We are urging local boards wherever possible to approve these schools, as many as they can,” Barge said. “That is going to be the best short-term solution at this point in time.”

There is a lot of work to be done on finances.  Reopening these schools with local charters or as state special schools will require innovative combinations of federal, state, local and potentially private dollars.  Georgia cannot use any of this year’s $100 million Race to the Top grant, but it will seek other federal support and the Charter Schools Association will explore private foundation funding.

Nobody knows for certain how much Georgia’s education image was tarnished by last month’s Supreme Court decision.  Nor is it possible to measure how the decision will impact the charter schools movement.  The Georgia Charter Schools Association estimates charter schools of all kinds will enroll 77,000 students statewide this fall, barely 2.5% of public school students.

“This is a setback because the eyes of the nation have been on us thinking that Georgia would be a good place for education management organizations to partner with people,” said Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “This is going to put some reluctance on that, to say the least.”

The quick fix that would enable commission schools to reopen this fall is a one-year or perhaps two-year solution at best.  The next move belongs to the Legislature which must decide whether it wants to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot.

Voters could be asked to re-establish the commission concept, or perhaps allow the state to expand the definition of state special schools.  There is no guarantee how voters would react.

Last November voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have imposed a small annual motor vehicle fee to completely fund a statewide trauma care network.  Central and South Georgia voters who would have benefited the most from new trauma centers defeated the initiative.

How will voters respond next year when they are asked for permission to impose additional sales taxes to fund long lists of regional transportation projects.  These are being called critical to Georgia’s future, but in a state with high unemployment and many more folks underemployed, will voters be inclined to raise their sales taxes?  Nobody can say.

Strategies to provide short-term relief to the former commission schools are a good step forward.  But they are far from a solution and that is recognized by everyone involved.  Senator Millar said this about going forward, “I hope at this point that we don’t have any more litigation.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)    

June 4, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Asks Supreme Court to Reconsider Charter Schools Decision

Mike Klein

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider its recent decision that declared the state charter schools commission is unconstitutional.

“Today we filed a motion for reconsideration in an effort to protect the rights of Georgia students to have a say in their education and be placed in a school that meets their needs,” Olens said. “I hope the Court will accept the arguments presented in our brief and reconsider their decision.”  The two-part filing included a motion asking the Court to stay its decision announced May 16.

The Court’s 4-3 opinion immediately impacts 16 brick-and-mortar and online learning charter schools that expected to enroll at least 15,000 students when classes resume in August.  State legislators have begun work on options to provide a short-term fix this fall.  A Senate education sub-committee will be in session on this question next week.

All Georgia charter schools are public schools, and most of the state’s 60,000 charter students attend schools that received charters from local school districts.  However, 16 other schools received state Charter Schools Commission authorization to open after they were turned down by local districts.  This was made possible by a 2008 law that created the commission.

Seven school districts filed suit in 2009. They argued the state charter schools commission was unconstitutional because it bypassed local control of education. The plaintiffs also argued state charter commission schools did not fit the definition of “special schools” that the state is permitted to establish for deaf and blind students, and for other purposes like adult education.

The plaintiff districts did not argue money before the trial court, where they lost, or before the Supreme Court, where they prevailed one week ago.  Tens of millions of federal, state and local dollars are directed to state charter commission schools.   Consequently, local school districts lose those dollars when students exercise school choice rights and choose charter schools.

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens

Four Supreme Court justices in the majority ruled state charter commission schools are not special schools, according to the definition of special schools in the 1983 amended constitution. The Court also affirmed the local control position advocated by the plaintiff school districts.

The Attorney General’s office motion articulated this distinction:  “Special now evidently means a ‘special student,’ while our Constitution refers to ‘special schools.’  ‘Special’ apparently no longer means a school that offers an experimental and different approach to education than that found in a local school system.”

The motion to reconsider filed by Attorney General Olens also argued Georgia public education has never been exclusively about local control; rather, it is a shared responsibility.  The Georgia state public education budget is some $7 billion per year, about 40% of the entire state budget.

Charter schools enroll about 4% of the state’s 1.65 million public school students; the number who would attend state commission schools next year is 1% of the entire student population.

State lawmakers are considering several ideas that would enable Georgia to regain the position it had begun to earn as a national leader in the school choice and charter schools movements.

Short-term options include placing the 16 affected schools directly under the state Board of Education as “special schools” that receive state funds but no local dollars.  Another potential idea would enable them to open this fall as private schools.  Funding models would change.

Long-term, the Legislature is expected to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would ask voters to give the state the authority to establish public schools.  The amendment would appear on the November 2012 general election ballot.  But that election is 18 months away, so other protections are needed for the 2011 and 2012 calendar school years.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 27, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia School Choice Advocates Are Not Going Down Without a Fight

Mike Klein

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)

May 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Supreme Court Throws Thousands of Charter Students into Limbo

Mike Klein

The Georgia Supreme Court decision that struck down the state’s charter school commission is a long-awaited opinion that seems likely to throw thousands of students into education limbo and dismantle a growing network of existing and approved charter schools.

The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in favor of the challenge by seven public school systems to a 2008 state law that created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission. The law gave the GCSC the authority to authorize and fund charter schools with state and local dollars.  Some schools that received state commission charters were initially turned down by local boards of education.

It is now apparent the Supreme Court has been deeply divided since oral arguments last October. Predictions of a quick ruling before year-end vanished. The Court took the highly unusual step in March to announce it would delay its ruling with no date specified. The review lasted seven months.

The majority opinion focused on a strict interpretation of “special schools” which the 1983 state Constitution defined as schools established to help students with special needs, for example, blind, deaf and vocational or adult students. The 2008 law sought to expand “special schools” to include charter schools which did not exist when the Constitution was amended 28 years ago.

Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein

Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein wrote the 24-page majority opinion:

“Labeling a commission charter school as ‘special’ does not make it so when the students who attend locally-controlled schools are no less special than those enrolled in commission charter schools and the subjects taught at commission charter schools are no more special than the subjects that may be available at locally-controlled schools.”

The majority opinion underscored a strict, traditional view of local control over school systems:

“Because our constitution embodies the fundamental principle of exclusive local control of general primary and secondary (“K-12″) public education and the Act clearly and palpably violates (the State Constitution) by authorizing a State commission to establish competing State-created general K-12 schools under the guise of being “special schools,” we reverse.”

The Commission would have enrolled up to 16,500 students in 17 schools this fall. After the ruling, state Schools Superintendent John Barge said his office will begin to examine “what flexibility can be offered for these schools.”

Justice David E. Nahmias

Justice David E. Nahmias wrote the 74-page primary dissent:

“Today four judges have wiped away a small but important effort to improve public education in Georgia – an effort that reflects not only the education policy of this State’s elected representatives but also the national education policy of the Obama administration. That result is unnecessary, and it is unfortunate for Georgia’s children, particularly those already enrolled and thriving in state charter schools.”

The dissent also took strong exception to the majority opinion view of local control:

“Moreover, local boards of education – entities that are not even mentioned in the Constitution until 1945 – have never had and do not today have ‘exclusive control over general K-12 public education,’ because that control has always been shared with and regulated by the General Assembly and, since 1870, by the State Board of Education and State Superintendent as well.”

The dissent continued, “Thus, understood in the true historical context, commission charter schools are simply the latest iteration of ‘special schools’ that have long been created by the General Assembly outside the ‘common’ local school systems in Georgia. The majority may be able to change our law, but it cannot change our history.”

Hunstein was joined in the majority by Justices Robert Benham, P. Harris Hines and Hugh Thompson. Nahmias was joined in the minority by Justices George Carley and Harold D. Melton.

Justice Harold D.Melton

Melton quoted directly from the Charter Schools Commission Act in a second dissent that noted the 2008 General Assembly sought to create “access to a wide variety of high-quality educational options for all students regardless of disability, race or socioeconomic status, including those students who have struggled in a traditional public school setting.”

Melton wrote the law specifically referred to “providing the highest level of public education to all students, including, but not limited to, low-income, low-performing, gifted and underserved student populations and to students with special needs.”

All Georgia charters are public schools. The first Georgia charter schools law passed in 1993 and was modified five years later.  Under the 1998 law, state or local boards could authorize charter schools. Most charters are brick-and-mortar schools; some are online learning models.  Georgia has more than 60,000 students in charter schools.

The 2008 law was the first update in ten years and it caused a ruckus.  The new legislation enabled petitioners who were turned down by local school boards to appeal to a new state commission. Local school districts lose funds that follow students to state charter schools.  This change coincided with the rapid expansion of online learning companies whose products compete with local school districts.

The majority opinion said very little about redirection of state and local education dollars, even though that has been hotly debated and was widely considered to be the real reason for the lawsuit filed by Gwinnett, Atlanta, DeKalb and four other school districts.  The majority’s 24-page ruling focused almost entirely on historical and current definitions of special schools.

Writing the dissent, Nahmias said, “Because the majority evidently can find no traction in the local systems’ attack on the funding scheme … as the ground for striking down the statute, the majority must rely on the ‘special schools’ argument, which has the consequence of nullifying any state charter schools established under the 1998 Act.”

Ironically, Georgia public education innovation in the charter schools sector was one reason the state received a $400 million Race to the Top grant from President Barack Obama’s administration.  Now the state Supreme Court decision means charter commission schools will lose tens of millions of dollars.  They will be forced to find a new lifeline or perhaps cease to exist.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

May 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does Supreme Court Charters Case Put Other School Funds At Risk?

Mike Klein

Did the Georgia Supreme Court delay its long-awaited opinion in the high profile state charter schools commission case because of the potential far-reaching impact on education equalization dollars received by three-fourths of Georgia public school districts?

“This case is filled with a lot of thorny issues and it’s one that is requiring more deliberation by the justices,” said Tony Roberts, chief executive officer at the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “My guess is there are so many ramifications about any decision that they have to consider not just the constitutionality of the case, but also the ramifications.”

Roberts predicted a Supreme Court decision to strike down the state Charter Schools Commission funding model “will affect some previous legislation as well, for instance, equalization.  If they say the state cannot reallocate money (to charter commission schools) then equalization will not happen as well and there will be a lot of school systems unhappy about that.”

Equalization … like charter schools commission funding … is a unique funding model created by the General Assembly to move state education dollars into classrooms.  Georgia has 180 public school systems; 75% receive equalization dollars based on their property tax base.  The 25% of school districts with the highest property tax base do not receive extra funds.

Most observers expected the Supreme Court to rule this week in a case that would decide the landscape for state-approved charter schools of both brick-and-mortar and virtual varieties.

Three years ago the 2008 General Assembly created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and gave it the power to authorize charter school applications that were rejected by local boards.  Legislators also gave the commission authority to transfer dollars from public school districts to state charters.  Gwinnett sued and six other districts joined the suit as co-plaintiffs.

Last May, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled the General Assembly was within its constitutional right to create the Charter Schools Commission and its funding model.

Then in October the seven plaintiff districts appealed to the Supreme Court.  They asked the seven justices to overturn the decision and declare the commission legislation unconstitutional. There also is a question about whether commission charters qualify as “special schools.”

Wednesday morning the Court sent an electronic mail which said that “for good cause” the case would be “hereby extended until further order” of the Court.  A spokesperson said the unusual order gives the Court flexibility to rule at any point, which could mean soon or not soon at all.

Attorneys on both sides were caught somewhat flat-footed by the announcement.

Attorney Josh Moore represents Gwinnett public schools, which is the lead plaintiff.  “All I told them was not to read too much into it,” Moore said Wednesday afternoon.  “The Court is supposed to rule by the end of the second term and they just decided they need more time.”

Bruce Brown represents charter schools.  “We understand the Court has the authority to issue its opinion at any time and it could come right away or the delay could be substantial,” Brown said.  “We do know the charter school case is the only case which they extended the term.”

Attorney Tom Cox represents the Atlanta and DeKalb public school systems.  Cox could not recall another case in which the Supreme Court announced it would delay a ruling. “It’s totally new to my experience.  I couldn’t even speculate about what if anything it means other than they are granting themselves an extension,” Cox said.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The “special schools” question is intriguing.  A 1983 state constitution amendment defined “special schools” as being for disabled persons. Charter schools did not exist in 1983.  A Supreme Court ruling that favors the commission would expand the “special schools” definition.

The Supreme Court found itself boxed into a calendar corner.  The case was filed in September.  The Court is required to decide all cases within two terms, which almost always means the decision is reached within six months.  But with the opinion clearly not ready, the Court took the most unusual step to issue an order granting itself more time.

“Had they not done that I believe the lower court order would stand,” said Moore, who represents Gwinnett.  “This case is too important to do that so regardless of which way they rule, they are going to provide a rationale for the ruling.  It underlines the complexity of the case.”  The plaintiffs are Gwinnett, Atlanta, Bulloch, Candler, DeKalb, Griffin-Spalding and Henry.

Mark Peevy is executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  Peevy said the 17 charter schools “don’t have any questions that they didn’t have yesterday.  We’re still at the same spot.  We certainly believe the Superior Court was right and we are expecting the Supreme Court to uphold that decision.” State charters will enroll up to 16,500 students next fall.

“Our approach and our belief is we’re going to be here next year,” said Matt Arkin, Head of School at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 online students.  “GCA is not going anywhere and I hope we can say the same about all Commission schools.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

March 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Is Real Agenda Behind Challenge to Charter Schools Commission?

Mike Klein

A wild party broke out Monday at The Freight Depot downtown.  Hundreds of children who attend non-traditional public schools (Quiet now: those are “virtual schools”!) showed up for a heavy dose of educational inspiration followed by an avalanche of boxed chicken sandwiches.

There were definitely no chicken sandwiches just down the street where a small collection of state senators, lobbyists, interested charter school educators and budget officials sat down for a one-hour discussion about the state’s multi-billion dollar K-12 annual education budget.

One senator who was trying to make sense of the funding conversation finally summed it up this way: “Whoever thinks up these formulas like QBE… and apparently this one, I would be glad when they give us something that the general public can understand.”

The budget administrator who was trying to answer the people’s questions replied, in part, “We have to calculate it so I would be very interested myself.”

Amen.

Current questions include one that popped up recently when the House authorized a spending bill that cast aside the Georgia Charter Schools Commission board decision and its vote to pay virtual charter schools a targeted $5,800 per pupil next year. The House voted out not more than $5,200.

This may look like little more than in-house stuff about proper budgetary levels.  It’s no secret that the state budget model these days is best summarized as “Shared Sacrifice.”  But one could become a bit more intrigued about why this happened and suggest a higher stakes agenda may be unfolding.

Not everyone is absolutely in love with charter schools and especially, virtual schools.

The state Charter Schools Commission is no stranger to attacks from beyond the trenches. In fact, all sides are nervously anticipating how the Georgia Supreme Court will rule this month in a lawsuit by seven public school systems who, bottom line here, want to see the Commission vaporized.

But the Commission board did not anticipate it would need to fight a funding battle this year with House and perhaps Senate budget writers.  After all, House Bill 881 created the Commission three years ago. Legislation says the Commission shall “provide for funding for commission charter schools.”

House Bill 881 also empowered the Commission to “reduce the amount” compensated to virtual schools which have different, and sometimes lower, costs than brick and mortar charter schools.  The $5,800 level for next year virtual schools students was approved in December after an exhaustive analysis that bench-marked Georgia against virtual schools nationwide.

There is nothing in HB 881 about the Commission shall provide for funding, but other folks can come along later and overrule a legally taken official vote by the Commission’s appointed board.

The question is bigger than $5,800 or $5,200. The question is where does this start and end?  Military students can regale you about the significance of a lost bunker, a surrendered sunken road, or a retreat from the wheat field, and how that may have impacted battlefield victory or defeat.

What we may have is a direct challenge to the state Charter Schools Commission board which legally set 2011 – 2012 virtual school funding levels, only to see that overturned by the House which did not consult with the Commission board or its executives. This could set a bad precedent in which the board is consistently second-guessed to no benefit whatsoever.

Tony Roberts is Chief Executive Officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. Roberts watched Monday’s hour-long eduction budget testimony, and then concluded, “The rationale was to reduce the price being paid by a local school district to educate its own students. The motivation here is not to find the best number to operate a virtual charter school.”

Stephanie Reid is board chair of Georgia Connections Academy, one of three new charter virtual schools scheduled to open next fall.  Reid said, “My question is, how do you justify this to a fifth grader who needs or is interested in learning virtually?  How do you tell this kid you deserve less because you need a non-traditional option? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Joint House and Senate education committee will meet Tuesday afternoon.  Many folks who trekked downtown Monday will be back for the next possible round in this uncertain conversation.  The chess game to see who holds this budget wheat field seems far from settled.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.)

March 22, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

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