Mike Klein Online

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

Is Charter Schools Commission Case Headed Back to Supreme Court?

Mike Klein

We should know very soon whether the Georgia Supreme Court will be asked to reconsider its historic charter schools commission decision, even though one source said the likelihood that the Court would reverse itself is “an astronomical possibility,” as in, place really low bets.

Thursday could be a pivotal date. Representatives from commission charter schools affected by Monday’s Supreme Court decision have been asked to attend a meeting with Attorney General’s Office and State Board of Education staff.  Then in the evening one of the charter commission schools will go before the Gwinnett County Board of Education to request a local charter.

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the 2008 General Assembly overstepped its bounds with a law that gave a new state commission the power to authorize charter schools, in many instances, after those same schools were denied charters by local boards of education.  The Court majority said in 4-3 split decision that it would not allow the state to create K-12 “special schools” that compete with local board of education schools for students and funds.

Several sources who are familiar with options being discussed since Monday said a decision to request Supreme Court reconsideration is near the top of the list because the motion must be filed no later than Tuesday, May 31. There would be no new oral arguments and the Supreme Court could issue a confirmation or reversal of its first decision at any time.

Speaking on background, sources said strategies are being broken down into short-term and long-term priorities.  Short term priorities include making certain that commission school professional staffs are paid through the end of this school year and then examining options that would enable schools to operate next year.

There is growing support for a short-term option that would transfer existing and newly authorized charter commission schools to direct supervision by the State Board of Education. This would change their funding models – always a dicey and critical component of any change — but it could prove to become the best option to prevent shutdowns. The downside is another possible legal challenge.

Three persons who are familiar with ongoing conversations said federal Race to the Top dollars might be an option to replace local funds that would be lost if the state board assumes control.   Estimates vary, but that shift could require $30 million to $50 million. Race to the Top dollars have already been designated for STEM education programs, per Governor Nathan Deal.

Another short-term option could create one of the most interesting public relations scenarios.  At least two charter commission schools will request charters from local boards of education that originally rejected them. Ivy Prep Academy will ask the Gwinnett Board of Education for a charter on Thursday evening.   Ivy received a state commission charter after it was  rejected by Gwinnett.  Cherokee Charter Academy will do the same in Cherokee County, where it was also initially turned down.

Georgia charter schools draw students from an extremely wide geographic footprint.  That creates unique funding challenges.  For example, Ivy Prep Academy could receive a Gwinnett local charter but local funding associated with that charter would only follow students who are county residents.  The Gwinnett board cannot take any action that would ensure Ivy Prep is paid to educate students who live in other counties. That would require some sort of additional financial fix.

The problem becomes potentially more extreme when you consider charter commission online learning schools. Georgia Cyber Academy expects to enroll at least 8,500 online students this fall. GCA pupils come from nearly every county in Georgia. The Academy needs a financial model that ensures consistent funding.  It cannot piecemeal money county-by-county.  Georgia Cyber was originally under state board supervision and that might become its best current option again.

Looking toward long-term solutions, sources agreed their best option rests with a constitutional amendment that voters would be asked to approve in November 2012.  Amendment language could take many forms but, essentially, it would ask Georgia voters to approve creation of a commission that could authorize state charter schools and designate funding.  Perhaps that would end discussions about what is a special school, and what is a special student.

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

May 18, 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

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

Supreme Court Decision Soon in Charter Schools Commission Showdown

Mike Klein

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.)

March 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia House Throws Roadblock into Virtual Schools Funding Plan

Mike Klein

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission knew it had a problem last year when two companies that operate online learning schools withdrew from the state because of inadequate per pupil funding.  Then in December, the commission changed funding levels for next year students but that work may have been torpedoed by the House spending bill passed last week.

The House spending bill would provide $5,200 in state per pupil funding for students who leave traditional brick-and-mortar schools to enroll in an online learning school.  That is $600 less than the $5,800 level that the charter schools commission board approved in December.  Both figures would be more than this year’s approximate $3,400 funding level.

The House vote came as a complete surprise.  “From an official standpoint, no one talked to me, no one talked to the commission,” GCSC executive director Mark Peevy said on Monday.  “As the House was approving the budget last week this item popped up and made it through.

“We spent a lot of time looking at the number and firmly believe we had the right number with all the right folks at the table,” Peevy said.  “It is certainly within the purview of the appropriations committee and the House as a whole to do this if they want to.”

Commission staff spent last summer and fall working to determine a proper state funding level for students after two online schools – Kaplan and Provost – withdrew from Georgia.  Staff consulted with national experts, reviewed alternatives with state budget officials, met closely with political leaders and they kept constant communications open to virtual school operators.

The $5,800 per pupil funding level approved in December was considered a good compromise if somewhat below the $6,500 national average.  There was consensus on the commission board and among education companies that the state had done what it could inside a very tough budget.  The commission also thought it had buy-in across the street at the State Capitol.

Matt Arkin is head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy, which is the state’s largest online learning venture with 6,500 students this year and 8,500 planned next fall.  He described the House vote last Friday as “another broadside” in the attempt to get fair per pupil funding.

“Virtual schools and all the Commission schools are part of QBE (the state’s education funding formula),” Arkin said.  “We’re not a separate allotment anywhere.  What’s the drive behind this?  What’s to be gained?  What’s the motivation to leave even more money back at the schools these students won’t even be at in the fall?”

The House spending bill is not the absolute final word.  The Senate education appropriations committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon.  “I am fairly certain this will be part of the conversation,” GCSC executive director Peevy said.  The funding decision could come down to another compromise during the House – Senate spending bill conference process.

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

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

State Board Expands One Online School and Approves Two New Ones

Mike Klein

Georgia students will have expanded online learning opportunities next fall after the Georgia Charter Schools Commission approved three charters on Thursday.  The state’s largest virtual school will expand its high school curriculum and two new schools were re-approved to open.

The board also voted to reduce the percentage of money withheld from charter schools to support commission staffing and programs.  Executive director Mark Peevy predicted as many as 16,500 students will enroll in brick-and-mortar or virtual charter schools next fall.  The majority, some 11,000, would participate in exclusively online learning programs.

The board voted new charters for Georgia Cyber Academy, which is the state’s largest virtual school with 6,500 students this year, and the brick-and-mortar Odyssey School.  Georgia Cyber previously operated as Odyssey’s online learning option but now they will become independent schools.  Commission board approval to separate Georgia Cyber and Odyssey was unanimous.

Georgia Cyber expects to enroll 8,500 students next fall with 6,500 in elementary and middle school courses.  The remainder would be freshman and sophomore high school students.  The Academy will add junior and senior courses in later years when it enrolls up to 16,500 students.

Georgia Cyber head of school Matt Arkin said the Academy had 15,000 applications this year above those from returning students.  Georgia Cyber maintains a 1,000-student waiting list.

The commission board also re-approved charters for two schools that withdrew from the state education market last summer because they said state payment dollars were insufficient.

Provost Academy Georgia planned to open as the state’s first virtual high school serving up to 800 students last fall.  Provost predicted it would enroll 2,700 students within five years.

Kaplan Academy of Georgia planned to enroll up to 960 students last fall with half in grades 6-8 and the remainder in high school.  Kaplan predicted it would enroll 5,575 within five years.

State payments would have been $3,400 per student which Provost and Kaplan said was less than operating costs.  In December the commission board voted to reimburse $5,800 per pupil starting next fall.   The schools submitted new budgets in line with the larger reimbursement.

Finally, the commission reduced the percentage schools are charged to support GCSC staff and programs.  Legislation that created the commission allows for up to 3% of per pupil funding to be withheld from payments to schools.  The board reduced that percentage to not more than 2% next year.  Peevy said new hires will increase next year’s budget from $700,000 to $850,000.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

February 17, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia’s Largest Virtual School Could Get Approval To Expand

Mike Klein

Georgia Cyber Academy is already the state’s largest virtual charter school.  Now it appears poised to start an expansion that would bring online learning to thousands of new students.

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission has published a staff recommendation that would allow the Academy to eventually enroll up to 10,000 new students and expand curriculum through all four years of high school.  “We’re definitely excited,” said Matt Arkin, head of school at Georgia Cyber.  The GCSC board vote is expected during its Thursday meeting in Atlanta.

Georgia Cyber Academy currently has 6,500 students enrolled in K-9 online classes.  The school has steadily grown since it opened in fall 2007 with 2,500 elementary and middle grade pupils.  Freshman high school classes were offered starting last fall.  Demand is strong.  Arkin said the Academy has had up to 1,000 students on waiting lists this school year.

The application that will be considered Thursday would allow Georgia Cyber to become a K-12 virtual school.  Sophomore high school classes would be offered next fall.  Junior and senior courses would be added in two subsequent years.  Enrollment would be approved up to 16,500.  That would equal about 1% of the state’s total public school student population.

Georgia Cyber has operated as the virtual school associated with its brick-and-mortar sister, the Odyssey School, run by K-12, Inc., which is a for-profit education company.  GCA and Odyssey would become separate entities with independent boards of directors.  The schools would not share instructors, facilities, funding or other resources.

Arkin said Georgia Cyber’s instructional staff would expand from 150 teachers this year to 220 or more next fall.  Charter schools funding formula changes that begin next fall will enable Cyber to offer new foreign language, music, art and other high school electives.

With expansion also come other new opportunities.  Arkin said Georgia Cyber will move toward development of blended learning options that change how teachers and students interact.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

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

Georgia Improves Funding, Approves Four New Charter Schools

Mike Klein

Georgia will devote millions more dollars to virtual charter schools and more Georgia students will have access to charter school education next fall.  That was clear after the seven-member state Charter Schools Commission board approved several measures on Thursday.

“With the votes we took today we moved Georgia education system into the 21st Century,” board chair Ben Scafidi told the Georgia Public Policy Foundation after the meeting.  “Come this fall Georgia will be the national leader in virtual education.”

The seven-member board voted to boost state dollars from the current $3,200 per pupil to a $5,800 target average effective next fall.  The average takes into account possible changes in funding formulas and numbers of special needs students.  Scafidi also warned that state-funded education can expect a 4% austerity cut during the next state fiscal year that starts July 1.

Ben Scafidi

The commission approved one new virtual charter for the 2011 school year.   “This is a great day for Georgia, a wonderful Christmas gift,” said Stephanie Reid, board president of Georgia Connections Academy.  The school plans to enroll up to 500 K-12 children next fall.  Georgia Connections will have a physical office somewhere in Atlanta metro.

Three brick-and-mortar charter schools were approved:  Chattahoochee Hills Charter offering K-8 classes in south Fulton County, Cherokee Charter Academy offering K-8 in Cherokee County and Heritage Preparatory Academy offering grades 6-8 curriculum in Atlanta.

The board deferred a final vote until next month on a new Georgia Cyber Academy K-12 virtual school.  Georgia Cyber and its brick-and-mortar sister Odyssey School in Newnan have been operating under a single board, but now they are being separated into different entities.

Matt Arkin

Georgia Cyber already is by far the state’s largest virtual school with 6,000 students using its online curriculum.  Georgia Cyber head of school Matt Arkin said the $5,800 funding formula will enable his school to hire more teachers, reduce class sizes and expand curriculum.

“People were looking at Georgia virtual education one way before today with the level of funding that was in place for virtual schools,” Arkin said.  “Opening it up, having multiple virtual schools and having a fairer funding figure definitely opens a more competitive environment and gets Georgia on par with other states.”

Last week Georgia Families for Public Virtual Education president Renee Lord urged the board to adopt the $6,500 national average reimbursement rate.Thursday she left the board meeting “very pleased” after the smaller $5,800 level was approved.  “It’s obvious they’ve spend a lot of time and done a lot of research to get to this number,” Lord said.

Renee Lord

Commission board chair Scafidi acknowledged the new number is a compromise.  “Our funding level is at the low end nationally but Georgia is a fiscally conservative state,” Scafidi said.  “We got that message loud and clear from the legislature, the governor and the powers that be.  We think we have a funding level that’s not too high, not too low, but just right.”

Andrew Lewis, chief programming officer at the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said the state must work to expand its charter schools geographic footprint.  “We need to show we are open to high quality charter schools, not just the Atlanta area but across the state,” Lewis said.  “Atlanta certainly has a lot of needs but there are other areas of our state, urban and rural.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

An overflow crowd attended the Georgia Charter Schools Commission meeting on Thursday, December 16.

December 16, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

State Charter Schools Seem Poised to Receive Funding Boost

Mike Klein

Georgia could become a more attractive location for charter schools Thursday after the state Charter Schools Commission board votes on a proposal to increase state per pupil funding by 80% from $3,200 to $5,800 per year. Georgia’s current reimbursement rate is among the lowest nationwide; the new rate would move the state toward the middle.

Full-time online school charter funding fluctuates nationally. This month Louisiana approved $7,000 per pupil for two new charter schools.  Pennsylvania has paid up to $8,100 per pupil and South Carolina joins Georgia on the low end at $3,300 per pupil. Eleven states provide between $5,000 and $7,500 in per pupil reimbursement, according to a Georgia Cyber Academy national analysis.

There is a definite air of optimism that Georgia is about to move forward with a compromise that would be financially acceptable to charter school operators and state government budget and education policy makers who have struggled with this issue for nearly three years.

“We’re thrilled,” said Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder and senior vice president of Connections Academy, a national provider of online learning resources. Connections Academy is one of 17 charter school providers with an application to open a new 2011 year charter school in Georgia.  The board will also vote on those applications when it meets Thursday.

“I anticipate that tomorrow we will have a real decision on the funding level,” Charter Schools Commission executive director Mark Peevy told the Public Policy Foundation on Wednesday. “I want folks to understand we didn’t pick a number out of the air. We didn’t decide arbitrarily. We did have a process. We looked at a lot of data. We had a lot of collaboration.”

Georgia Charter Schools Association chief programming officer Andrew Lewis said the $5,800 level is “a reasonable compromise. I was hoping to see something between $6,000 to $6,500 so at $5,800, while it is maybe a little bit short, this is a very good jumping off place.”

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was established by the 2008 General Assembly. The commission operates inside the state Department of Education. It can authorize new schools and direct state funds to charter schools even when local boards of education denied charter applications.

Two disputes arose almost immediately and continue today. Seven school districts sued to have the Charter Schools Commission be declared unconstitutional and to deny its authority to reallocate education dollars when students leave traditional local public schools for public charter schools.

The challenge by Atlanta, Gwinnett, DeKalb and four smaller school systems was denied by a Fulton County trial court judge in May. The districts appealed to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard in October and a ruling is expected soon, meaning weeks or months.

Discussion about funding levels has percolated since the start but it boiled over in June when two charter school operators withdrew from Georgia after their applications were approved. Both national education companies said they could not operate at $3,500 per pupil reimbursement.

This triggered an internal review that began, charter schools commission executive director Peevy said, with recognition that “virtual schooling can be delivered in a number of different ways. There is not a single sole example of what a virtual school budget should look like.” Fiscal and policy analysts from throughout state government were asked to compare individual charter school budgets.

Then the commission sought national perspective from the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) which recommends that charter schools should be reimbursed at 65% of the traditional brick and mortar pupil rate. Peevy said the $5,800 proposed rate that will be considered Thursday is approximately 65% of Georgia’s $8,800 per pupil cost.

This year Georgia has 2,400 pupils enrolled in eight state charter commission public schools. Seven offer K-8 curriculum; Charter Conservatory in Statesboro also offers high school courses.

Mickey Revenaugh

Connections Academy has been working on a Georgia charter schools strategy for eight years. Revenaugh said the $5,800 number is “slightly on the skinny side of adequate but within range.” If approved on Thursday, a new Georgia Connections Academy would serve 500 students next fall, “a tiny drop in the bucket to the number who are interested,” said Revenaugh, who also is an iNACOL national board member. Connections Academy would have an Atlanta-area office.

Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Provost Academy are the two schools that triggered the review when they backed out in June.  Both have told Peevy they might be back if funding improves.  “I certainly anticipate both of them will want to move forward,” he said, “but I don’t have a guarantee.”

Thursday’s 10:00am meeting will be held in the state Department of Education board room at the Twin Towers government office building across from the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta. The meeting is open to the public.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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