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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

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

Georgia High School Students Lose Two Online Education Options

This article was published by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Georgia high school students who would like to pursue full-time online education options may have seen their hopes diminished this week.  Two companies that were approved to open online high schools in August will cancel because they believe the financial model offered by the state does not work.  This is a punch to the gut for advocates of online education in Georgia.

Last month the Georgia Charter School Commission approved Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Provost Academy Georgia with the understanding that coursework costs would need to fit into available state funding, estimated at about $3,500 per pupil.  Provost planned to enroll 800 high school students and Kaplan planned 460 students. Continue reading

July 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

   

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