What Is Real Agenda Behind Challenge to Charter Schools Commission?
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.”
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.)
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