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Governor Deal: “Parents Quite Frankly are the Ultimate Local Control”

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal traveled to Cherokee County on Thursday morning to deliver a message about charter schools.  “Parents quite frankly are the ultimate local control,” the Governor told parents, teachers, students, legislators and media who gathered at Cherokee Charter Academy to watch him sign this year’s charter schools commission implementation legislation.

“We hear that term used quite a bit but parents should be the ones who have a great say so in the way their children are educated,” Deal said.  “We believe that if we empower the citizens of this state and give them those kinds of opportunities they will respond.”

The official business was a signing ceremony for House Bill 797 that establishes how the state would re-create a charter schools commission if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November.  The bill also describes how state commission charter schools would be funded.

The unofficial business Thursday morning was to deliver a blunt message to those who continue to resist the charter schools movement that is trying to provide learning options in Georgia.

(Click here to watch the House Bill 797 signing ceremony on YouTube.)

Governor Nathan Deal

“Charter schools are in my opinion a key ingredient in the future educational success for the state of Georgia,” Governor Deal said.  “We know that when you promote competition, when you promote strong parental involvement which charter schools by necessity must have, then you improve the overall climate in which learning takes place.”

This issue has polarized educators and families who are trying to innovate with local or state approved charters against school boards, superintendents and teachers whose associations oppose the state charter schools commission concept and the constitutional amendment.

Cherokee Charter Academy opened last August as a state charter school after the Cherokee County Board of Education twice denied its local charter application. Click here to learn more about Cherokee Charter Academy and its fight with the Cherokee County school board.

Constitutional amendment opponents argue charter schools take education dollars away from local schools.  Deal answered that charge, saying, “House Bill 797 clearly states that local school districts will not miss out on funding because a charter school operates in their area.”

Lisa Grover of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools presented Deal with the Alliance’s 2012 Champion for Charters Award for his actions to safeguard 15,000 students after last year’s state Supreme Court decision that voided the state charter schools commission.  Previous recipients of the National Alliance award include governors Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

(Click here to watch Governor Deal receive the 2012 Champion for Charters Award from the National Alliance of Public Schools on YouTube.)

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

May 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Cherokee Charter Academy: The Perfect Place to Sign House Bill 797

Mike Klein

Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  Last spring it seemed possible – maybe even probable — that Cherokee Charter would never open because of a state Supreme Court decision.  What a difference a year makes.  Governor Nathan Deal will visit the school Thursday morning when he signs legislation to create the structure for a new state charter schools commission.

“We’re very excited that not only is the Governor pro-charter but he is coming to our school to sign House Bill 797,” said Cherokee Charter Principal Vanessa Suarez.  “At the end of the day, all politics aside, we are here for the kids.  We are here for our students that want a choice.”

This signing ceremony could have been done anywhere, including at the State Capitol. Doing it at a charter school that thrived despite constant disapproval by the local school board will send a succinct message:  School choice is a good idea that is consistent with quality local public education.  Perhaps the Cherokee County school board should get on-board.

Georgia will create a new charter schools commission next year if voters statewide approve a constitutional amendment that is on the November ballot.  The new commission would consider but is not required to approve charter school applications only after they are rejected locally.

You can find nearly all the arguments for-and-against state authorization of charter schools in Cherokee County.   A well-regarded school district that spends more than one-half billion dollars per year nonetheless wails publicly about tight budgets.   In doing so, it tries to portray a start-up charter school with a tiny budget as a threat to public school funding.  The start-up serves about 2% of the county’s public school students and it is a long way from being a threat to status quo.

Vanessa Suarez, Principal, Cherokee Charter Academy

The Cherokee County school board has never approved a local charter school application.  It rejected Cherokee Charter Academy three times, including twice last year and again for the 2012 – 2013 school year.  The Academy in Canton opened with about 825 students last August after it received a state charter and state funding authorized by Governor Deal.

Funding is a relative term.   State records indicate state, local and SPLOST funding amounts to $8,749 per pupil in the traditional Cherokee County public schools.  This year Cherokee Charter Academy received $5,000 per pupil in average total funds from all sources.  It does not receive local tax dollars or SPLOST capital expenditure funds.

A Cherokee County school board majority and Supt. Frank R. Petruzielo have repeatedly portrayed this issue as local, and say their concern is about the Cherokee schools.

Then last week the Cherokee board passed a resolution by a 4-2 vote that “requests that voters of the State of Georgia not support the Constitutional Amendment relative to charter schools.”  Now it is about more than Cherokee County; now it is about stopping state charters everywhere.

Carrying the title “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education,” the slightly longer than one page document is long on rhetoric about “an already underfunded public education system, resulting in overcrowded classrooms, shortened school calendars, insufficient textbooks and other curricular supplies and employee furloughs, with no end in sight” but it fails to recognize that all charter schools are public schools.  Let’s try that once more for those who might be newcomers here:  all charter schools are public schools.

The resolution is wrong and misleading when it tries to create the perception the state could “take and redirect local school tax dollars for the aforementioned purposes,” those purposes being to support state charter schools.

The constitutional amendment legislation stipulates only state dollars would be used to support state charter schools.  No local tax dollars would be redirected to state charter schools.  State funding to local school systems would not be reduced because any student leaves a traditional public school to enroll in a charter school.  Therefore, the resolution is misleading and false.

So to recap: Cherokee Charter opened with 825 students last fall and it received about $5,000 per pupil in total funding from all sources.  All local tax dollars and all SPLOST dollars for those students stayed with the Cherokee County public schools system.  Somehow those two ideas did not make their way into the “Resolution in Support of Quality Public Education.”

Cherokee County is a destination location. It is a nice place to live.  It has jobs.  It has good real estate values.  It has parks.  It has a 74% high school graduation rate, less than 85% claimed by the school district but still better than the 67% statewide average.  So, it has good schools.  This year the district will spend $527 million to educate 38,766 students.  The district has almost as much staff – 2,169 – as it does teachers – 2,343.

This August the traditional school district will expand its STEM and fine arts programs, which Cherokee County board member Michael Geist sees as a response to Cherokee Charter Academy.  “I don’t know if I care too much why they did this.  I’m just glad they did,” said Geist, who was elected to the traditional county board but has two children enrolled at Cherokee Charter Academy.

Geist voted against the constitutional “Quality Public Education” resolution. “It seems like every idea worth investing in gets shot down by the education lobby and the education establishment,” Geist said.  “We don’t even get a chance to really find out if charter schools can work well.”

What a difference a year makes.  Cherokee Charter Academy almost never happened.  This fall the Academy will add eighth grade and enroll 1,000 students.  The Academy was also selected to participate in a middle schools program offered by Cambridge University in England.  This is a long way from not knowing whether your doors would open.

“We have learned the difference between a shock and an aftershock,” said board member Lyn Michaels-Carden.  “A year ago the things that happened to us shocked and stunned us and sometimes we were distraught.  Now because of everything we’ve been through it’s a lot easier to have perspective.  You get to the point where you recognize what’s really important.”

Cherokee Charter seems like a perfect place to sign charter schools commission legislation.

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

May 2, 2012 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

Georgia Attorney General Will Investigate Cherokee County School District

Mike Klein

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens said Friday that his office will open an investigation into how the Cherokee County School District responded to a citizen’s request for information.

The Georgia Open Records Act should give citizens a reasonable path to request information from their local governments, including school districts.  But how open is open when a local school district tries to charge $324,608 for the information?   That happened this week when Atlanta attorney Keith Meador sent a request to the Cherokee County School District.

On Monday June 20 Meador sent a request to Cherokee County School Superintendent Frank Petruzielo.  Meador asked for documents including emails and other communications that pertain to the proposed Cherokee County Academy charter school.  The request dates were not extensive; Meador asked for communications between May 16, 2011 and June 20.

Why does this matter to anyone?  Cherokee Charter Academy is among 16 schools whose state Charter Schools Commission authorizations were overturned last month when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission is unconstitutional.

Like other affected charter schools, the Academy has gone back to its local school district to request a temporary one-year authorization.  Update: In a Friday evening 4-3 vote, the Cherokee County Board of Education rejected the Academy application.

This was the Academy’s third attempt.  Cherokee’s board rejected two earlier applications but that was before the November 2010 voting that elected some members who were considered more supportive of charters.  Academy supporters have said the district encouraged teachers to oppose the charter school because it would threaten their jobs.  Meador said his request was sent because “in my opinion, these issues don’t affect the current teachers.”

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens

The state Open Records Act requires that local governments respond to requests within three days.  The Act permits governments to recover costs for employee time and copying.  Meador received his response on Thursday June 23.

The district told Meador it would need a $324,608 check to begin work and it would take 463 days to satisfy his information request.  That would be the equivalent of seven employees working 110 eight-hour days each to recover information created over the May 16 – June 20 period.  In total, the district said it would take 6,185 hours to recover the information.

Meador has filed hundreds of similar open record act requests in more than 20 states.  “I have never in all my years gotten back that this is going to take hundreds of thousands of dollars and this will take a year and a half to get back to you, “ Meador said.  “I’ve already requested that the Attorney General’s office look into this as a non-responsive response.”

On Friday afternoon, after he reviewed the request and the district response, Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens told the Foundation, “Our office will open an investigation into this matter. The response causes concern.”

Meador’s request and district response were shown to Andrew Lewis, executive vice president at the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “These are the exact type of shenanigans that charter school founders must deal with when attempting to get a school authorized,” Lewis said.  “It shows a clear need for having an authorizer other than local boards of education.”

Cherokee County Academy is trying to open as a brick-and-mortar school.  This issue was discussed last week, on Monday June 16, when school officials would not permit a CBSAtlanta television reporter to enter a scheduled public board meeting.  Some parents and teachers were also kept outside.  Here is a link to the station’s coverage of the Monday June 16 meeting.

The state Board of Education will meet next Tuesday morning to consider state special school charter applications from any former commission school that still needs authorization to open in August.  That is expected to include Cherokee now that the local school board has turned down its application for a third time.

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

June 24, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Unusual Week: “Everything Happened in Such a Hectic Fashion”

Mike Klein

Nina Gilbert was waiting to board a plane Friday when she paused to discuss the unusual week in Georgia charter schools history.  “Everything happened in such a hectic fashion,” said Gilbert, who is head of school at Ivy Prep Academy in Norcross.  “I feel most pressured to be able to inform my parents that school will start without a hitch.  This is incredibly urgent.”

Ivy Prep Academy in Norcross and Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton lost their operating charters on Monday when the Supreme Court struck down the Charter Schools Commission.  Some 16,500 students must consider new options and 16 schools face unknown futures.

Thursday evening Ivy Prep and Cherokee Charter schools asked local boards of education for new charters.  Both schools will have to wait a bit longer as neither board voted on Thursday.

Ivy Prep applied to the Gwinnett public schools board which turned down Ivy Prep’s request three years ago.  Gwinnett was also the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case.  “We need believers,” Ivy Prep’s Gilbert said.  “We need people who believe in what we do so the academic routines of our girls are not interrupted while the adults figure out what to do.”

Gwinnett turned down a school in theory three years ago but now its five board members must decide whether to grant a local charter or close an existing school and endure the reaction to that decision.  Ivy Prep enrolled 450 middle school girls this year.  About 60% live in Gwinnett; the next largest student group is from DeKalb County.  Ivy plans to start ninth grade this fall.

“We requested an extension to collaborate with Gwinnett County to ensure any questions can be answered to their satisfaction,” Gilbert said.  The next Gwinnett board meeting is June 16.  “We will meet any timeline to make sure (our families) can enroll this fall,” Gilbert said. “That is really the most important one to me, our families.”

Whereas Ivy Prep is working to save its fourth school year, Cherokee Charter Academy is trying to save its first.  The Canton-based brick-and-mortar charter school acquired a building large enough for 1,150 students and this fall it would open with about 950 students in grades K-8.

Cherokee Charter Academy applied to the Cherokee public schools board.  “It’s a very different (school) board from the one that turned us down and we are very grateful for that,” said parent advocate Lyn Michaels-Carden.  “They are very receptive.”  Three new school board members were elected last November. The board could vote on Cherokee Charter at its June 16 meeting.

Michaels-Carden is former radio personality turned marketing executive who is also Cherokee Charter Academy’s designated liaison between state and local education boards.  She fully expected to send her daughter to first grade this fall at Cherokee Charter.

“Cherokee is one of the top-performing counties in the state for education. Having said that, Georgia is 47th in the country and I have a very bright child,” Michaels-Carden said. “I want to see her challenged. I want to see her get the best education that she can and I think this school will offer that to her.  She is in a great school now but I think I owe her the best.”

Michaels-Carden said Cherokee supporters are optimistic.  “This has been quite an experience.”

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

May 23, 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