Mike Klein Online

School Choice Passes First Important Georgia Court Test

This article was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

School choice advocates in Georgia have prevailed in an important Superior Court ruling that upholds the constitutionality of state-created charter schools with partial funding from state taxpayer dollars.  Attorneys on both sides predict this case will be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court with a final decision sometime next year.  Charter schools are public schools.

One immediate impact is some 300 seventh-and-eighth grade girls will continue to navigate the hallways of Ivy Preparatory Academy in Norcross just outside Atlanta.  Ivy’s enrollment will jump to 450 students this fall when the Academy adds sixth graders.  Funding is also assured next year for the Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology in downstate Statesboro.

This is a David-vs.-Goliath financial showdown that pits a tiny number of state charter schools against an entrenched education bureaucracy.  More than 1.65 million Georgia students attend traditional public schools; 65,000 attend charter schools.  Just 430 attend state charter schools.

Ivy Preparatory Academy and Charter Conservatory will be joined by six new schools this fall and the state’s ninth charter school will open in 2011.  All were made possible by a 2008 state law that created the Georgia Charter School Commission.

Tony Roberts, executive director at the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said Friday’s ruling is “a victory for all of us” over “established educational powers that were feeling threatened.” Similar cases can be found nationwide.  The constitutionality of state-created charter schools was upheld in California, Ohio and Michigan cases, but charter schools lost in a Florida case.

Nina Gilbert is head of school at 2-year-old Ivy Preparatory Academy.  She knows there is a likely Georgia Supreme Court battle down the road.  “We’re not done (in court) if the districts decide to go further.  It is my hope they do not but I would not be surprised if they (appeal).”

The question before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy L. Shoob was whether the Georgia Charter Schools Commission can approve and fund charter schools after a local school board has already denied a charter.  Three of the state’s largest school systems were joined by four others in an effort to have the funding model declared unconstitutional.

Shoob heard three hours of arguments Friday, and then issued a speedy ruling: “The General Assembly has provided sufficient guidelines.  Commission charter schools are not required to be under the control or managed by an elected board of education.  The funding is constitutional.”

So, what’s all the fuss about?  In a nutshell, follow the money.  State education dollars assigned to charter schools would otherwise be allocated to traditional public school systems.  Ivy Academy received $1.2 million in state funds this year.   Ivy received $850,000 to fund Gwinnett students whose parents enrolled them in the Academy rather than in the public school system.

Attorney Tom Cox represented the Atlanta and DeKalb County school systems.  Cox said the public school districts believe the Georgia Charter Schools Commission usurps constitutional authority that local school boards have over public education.

Cox also said the plaintiffs contend the charter schools do not meet sufficient criteria to be described as special schools, such as those founded to teach blind or deaf students.

Gwinnett County (158,000 students), DeKalb County (98,000 students) the Atlanta Public Schools System (48,000 students) and four smaller systems also argue that using state funds to assist state-created charter schools is unconstitutional because they were not created by local boards. Ivy was created under state charter when Gwinnett denied its local charter application.

Attorney Josh Moore represents Gwinnett.  “We would have preferred to win but I think the expectation since the beginning was this would ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.”  Attorney Bruce Brown represented the charter schools.  “The law is what it is.  One judge has said quite emphatically that it is constitutional.”

Attorneys are uncertain about when they will see Judge Shoob’s final orders, but likely within several days to a couple weeks.  No district has announced whether it will appeal but attorneys expect to see each other again this fall or early next year at the Georgia Supreme Court.

Meantime, Ivy Prep’s Nina Gilbert expects to keep her focus on classrooms, not the courtroom.  “We have to remember charter schools started because of the demand for school choice,” Gilbert said.  “As long as parents demand choice, and as long as teachers are looking for more creative and innovative environments to teach, I think charter schools will thrive.”

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

This article was also published by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

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May 12, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , ,

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