Mike Klein Online

No Generation Holds a Copyright on Learning Innovation

Mike Klein

We have a choice this fall:  Do we want to be nationally recognized as innovators who push the learning envelope or, will Georgia become the first state in the country whose voters reject a constitutional amendment that would guarantee public school options for families?

Last week’s Georgia Public Policy Foundation commentary by Benita Dodd provides terrific context to positions on both sides of the proposed constitutional amendment question that will ask voters, “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

No generation holds a copyright on learning innovation.  We cannot predict how innovation tomorrow will advance learning to better levels of accessibility and performance.  But history suggests that innovation tomorrow will never come if innovation today is crushed for whatever reason.

The nationally recognized pioneer of public charter school law is touring Georgia this week to address audiences in four cities, including Thursday in Atlanta when Ember Reichgott Junge speaks to the Georgia Charter Schools Association conference at the World Congress Center.

Junge is the former Democratic state senator from Minnesota who is widely recognized as the principle author of the nation’s first independent public charter school law.  Her new book “Zero Chance of Passage” details the fight to pass the law in Minnesota.  Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government honored Junge with its Innovations in American Government Award for her independent public charter school leadership.

Ember Reichgott Junge, Author, “Zero Chance of Passage”

“It was a bipartisan initiative and it was championed by Democratic lawmakers who are union – endorsed like me,” says Junge.  “It actually came from the middle of the political spectrum.  Many people think it came from the right or it came from the left but it came from the middle and, you know, I don’t think chartering would pass in the political climate of today because there isn’t much middle left in elected office today.”

Those on both sides of the proposed constitutional amendment are firmly entrenched.  For those who are not yet decided, here are just a few details worth consideration, as reported by the state Department of Education and compiled by the Georgia Charter Schools Association.

This past school year (specifically, in March 2012) the state had 133,000 students enrolled in all public charter schools.  That was a tiny 7.9 percent of total statewide public school enrollment.  About two-thirds – some 100,000 – attended local board of education conversion schools.  Fewer than 28,300 attended independent start-up public charter schools.

Fewer than 2,000 learners — about one-eighth of 1 percent of all public school students — attended start-up charters that were created by local boards of education.  There are just seven public charter schools in the entire state that were created by local boards of education.

Here are three more numbers — 9 – 150 – 9 — that you should know about:  Nine is the number of Georgia counties that have an independent start-up public charter school.  One hundred fifty is the number of Georgia counties that do not have one.  Nine is the number of independent start-up public charter schools approved by local boards since 2009.

The bottom line:  local boards simply have no defensible track record that suggests they want to encourage new public charter schools – whether they run them or anyone else runs them.

Rick Ogston, Founder, Carpe Diem Schools

Recognized leaders in public charter education are watching to see how Georgia votes. That includes Rick Ogston, founder of the acclaimed Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona.  This fall he opened new Carpe Diem schools in Indiana, after a specific invite from Governor Mitch Daniels.

“I personally would never go to a state in which I had to subject myself to district authorization.   It is not a pretty picture,” Ogston said at last month’s third annual Georgia Legislative Policy Forum.  “Districts have a conflict of interest.  They may authorize you because the state says or the community says they want it, but they really don’t want you there.”

Washington is the only other state that will vote on an independent public charter school ballot question this year.  Previous efforts to pass the bill failed in 1996, 2000 and 2004.

This will be the first opportunity for Georgia voters – not legislators, not local boards, not the Supreme Court — to decide whether parents should have an option to select public schools they prefer for their children.  It is also the first time any state tried this by constitutional amendment.

National media largely ignored this year’s state transportation referendum but you can bet this result will be much more widely reported.  Georgia will be seen either as a leader or a laggard.

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

October 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Democrats Hooks, Thompson Led Charter Bill Across Senate Finish Line

Mike Klein

Senate Democrats intent on defeating a charter schools constitutional amendment vilified the legislation Monday afternoon.  Then four of their own including the Senate’s two longest serving members crossed the charter schools political divide to assure that Georgia voters will decide whether the state shall be allowed to approve charter schools when they vote in November.

George Hooks of Americus and Steve Thompson of Marietta have been in the Senate since 1991. They came to Atlanta as House freshmen ten years earlier.  Together they have walked those State Capitol corridors and heard thousands of speeches for some 60 combined years.

Monday afternoon Hooks and Thompson helped provide the difference in a charter schools bill vote that one day might be considered historic.  With 38 votes needed for two-thirds passage, Hooks and Thompson voted with the Republican majority.  They provided forceful political cover on a contentious issue.  The final vote was 40-to-16 with four Democrats in support.

Senator George Hooks

For Hooks, it was a personal decision.  The Sumter County schools that he attended as a youth and where his daughter now teaches first grade are in chaos and might lose their accreditation. Proclaiming that “My local people come first,” Hooks launched into a powerful oratory:

“I’m going to tell you one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever been through in my life was meeting with 128 mamas to talk about their children, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.  They are on the verge of catastrophe.  They have no faith, no confidence in our local school board,” Hooks told the quiet Senate.  “Maybe they are wrong but that’s the fact.

“If somebody has the power to take over that dysfunctional school board I will not stand in their way,” Hooks vowed.  “What they want is a state-chartered school system.  I am not going to face a tear-stained mama fighting to protect her child again.”  Shortly thereafter he concluded, “God bless each of you.  Vote your personal conscience.”

Thompson listened as three other Democrats spoke against the bill.  Sen. Vincent Fort called the legislation a “blatant corruption of power” that “trotted out” school children as “pawns to pad the pockets of for-profit management companies and real estate deals” supported by a “Herculean” lobbying effort that, Fort told the Senate, was “drenched in money mongering.”

Then Thompson – who once served as the Democratic majority floor leader – rose in defense of the bill.  “I went through one session when the public thought they didn’t get a chance to vote.  I don’t want to do that again because in the final analysis what some of you folks are forgetting is (Georgians) get to vote on this and debate it all summer and if they don’t like it they can make it go away,” Thompson said.

Senator Steve Thompson

“The other argument I hear that doesn’t make any sense (is) you don’t need to do this, you don’t have to do it.  Well, if you didn’t do it this way the public wouldn’t get to have their voices heard and vote on it.  Think of that.  I’m always going to be for public education.”

Thompson said he was assured by Governor Nathan Deal “that he is going to make it a priority that rural schools are not hurt and that some of these innovations will take effect in rural areas … I am not going to be accused of tying the hands of this administration when it wants to try innovation, or this General Assembly.  That’s where I’m at.  I’m going to embrace it because if you get afraid to change you become dust sitting in a car somewhere in a town where tumbleweed is rolling by you.”

All 36 Republicans voted yes. Hooks and Thompson were joined by Democrats Hardie Davis and Curt Thompson.  Democrats who worked against passage also offered two amendments that were both defeated.  One amendment would have rewritten the ballot question.  The other tried to ban for-profit education companies from doing business in Georgia.

Georgia Charter Schools Association CEO Tony Roberts singled out Governor Deal for his support since the unexpected Supreme Court opinion last May that declared the Georgia Charter Schools Commission unconstitutional.  The Governor approved several million dollars this year and next fall to make sure former charter commission schools will remain open.  He also named the constitutional amendment as one of his highest legislative priorities.

Asked about November, Roberts said, “The next strategy is how to keep the message ringing clear and true about what this will do.  There is going to be a lot of competing noise (around) the Presidential election.”  The ballot referendum needs a simple majority for November passage, a lower bar than the hurdle it just passed in the House and Senate.

“We’re tickled to death,” Roberts said.

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

March 20, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slim Margin in Georgia House for Charter Schools Amendment

Mike Klein

Georgia voters – the people whose tax dollars pay the bills at every public school system statewide – are one step closer toward being allowed to decide whether the state should have the authority to create and fund charter schools over the opposition of local school boards.

Wednesday afternoon the state House approved HR 1162 by a slim 123 – 48 margin.  That is three votes more than the measure needed for two-thirds super majority passage and 13 more than a different version received during the House floor vote two weeks ago.  The bill moves to the Senate where an education committee hearing is scheduled for 1:00pm Thursday.

“There have been a lot of people working hard and their efforts paid off,” said Tony Roberts, CEO at the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “This is certainly just the first battle in the war for our children to have options and choices in education which they so desperately need.”

The debate has pitted school choice advocates against a Georgia Supreme Court opinion last May that overturned the state charter schools commission.  It polarized political parties with Republicans almost unanimously in support of state alternate authorization and Democrats almost unanimously in support of exclusive local school board authorization of new charters.

The test vote two weeks ago defined what HR 1162 would need to achieve two-thirds House passage.  Critics demanded a much more specific definition of charter schools.  That definition is now in the bill; state charter schools have been defined as public schools that are not private sectarian, religious or for-profit schools or private educational institutions.

Representatives who opposed the resolution two weeks ago also wanted assurance that local education dollars would not be used to fund state charter schools.  “They will be funded only with state monies,” Speaker Pro Tem and HR 1162 sponsor Jan Jones said Wednesday.

Floor debate was scheduled for 90 minutes but lasted less than an hour.  Six Democrats – three in support and three still opposed — and House Majority Whip Larry O’Neal all spoke at length about whether local school boards control public education – as the Supreme Court opinion stated last May – or whether the schools are a partnership between the state and local boards.

O’Neal said, “This is bigger than charter schools.  Make no mistake; when courts invent their own words like exclusive and sole they are indeed making law.  I urge you to vote yes and move this measure across the hall and one step closer to the people to let them make the decision.”

Democrat Kathy Ashe voted no two weeks ago.  Over the past two weeks she spoke strongly about revisions.  Her floor remarks Wednesday were forceful.   “Sausage making is not always pretty but I come to the well today to say this process has worked,” Ashe said.

“I hope we talk long and hard about how charter schools are just a tiny portion of the public school system,” Ashe said.  “Yes, charter schools are public schools.  I hope we talk long and hard about what’s on the ballot because I want folks in Georgia to know there are going to be two ways to charter schools.

“The way it’s going to happen most frequently is with a local board saying, yes, let’s enter into a contract but in the rare occasion that there is a subject area, if there is a geographic reason to bring different school systems together to create a very special charter school, it may be that a secondary authorizer is the way to go.

“I comfortably ask you to vote for this version of 1162,” Ashe said.  “Sometimes this process is ugly.  Sometimes we get all fired up and say things we don’t really mean but in the long run, this process is the best way we know how to make law and 1162 is a good example of coming together for the students of Georgia.”

Her fellow Democrat Rashad Taylor was unconvinced: “This bill is about giving a new authority a new power to create schools in communities that have otherwise rejected those applications,” Taylor said.  “There is nothing in this resolution, nothing that guarantees that public school funding will not decrease because of charter schools.  Mr. Speaker, 1162 is a one-size fits all strategy that really doesn’t fit anything in Georgia.”

Democrat Scott Holcomb – like Ashe — voted against the resolution two weeks ago.  Holcomb co-authored a Democratic alternative that incorporated the public charter schools definition and state dollars only guarantees.  Wednesday he spoke in favor of the revised resolution.

“I understand many will vote against this on principle.  I very much respect that,” Holcomb said. “As the parent of a public school student I want to make sure the public schools are not harmed or defunded because of this resolution.  I feel comfortable that will not occur.

“It is right to want to keep control of local schools in the hands of locally elected school boards.  Historically that has been our practice in Georgia,” Holcomb added. “But it is also right to want energized and motivated people to get involved in making our schools much more than satisfying the constitutional standard of an adequate public education.”

Supporters were thrilled but cautious afterward.  “Now on to the Senate,” said Virginia Galloway, state director for the Americans for Prosperity Georgia chapter which supported HR 1162 passage. “We really appreciate the bipartisan support that it took to get this bill passed.”

The Georgia School Boards Association, Georgia School Superintendents Association, and the Georgia PTA oppose the charter schools constitutional amendment.  Roberts at the Charter Schools Association said the Senate Democratic caucus opposes the amendment. Two-thirds approval by the full Senate would put the constitutional amendment onto the November ballot.

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

February 22, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Charter School Kids: Boxed Into a Smaller Box

Mike Klein

MACON – Georgia children who attend charter public schools are typically boxed into smaller facilities that have inadequate library, science, art, music, cafeteria and physical education resources compared to traditional public schools.  That is the conclusion of a six-month study released last week during the Georgia Charter Schools Association ninth annual conference.

“Charter schools are in a facilities crisis,” GCSA President and CEO Tony Roberts told the Public Policy Foundation.  “The only way to alleviate that is for them to receive per pupil funding for facilities so they can afford to lease or buy facilities.”  Georgia start-up charter public schools do not receive facilities funds. Traditional public schools receive facility funds by several means.

Georgia instituted competitive public schools facilities funding 11 years ago and by law charter schools are eligible for E-SPLOST – education special local option sales tax – dollars but GCSA’s report said, “…the dividends from these programs have, thus far, been very limited.”

The GCSA report – “Shortchanged Charters: How Funding Disparities Hurt Georgia’s Charter Schools” – was scheduled for release in May but a decision was made to hold the report when the state Supreme Court declared the charter schools commission was unconstitutional.

The report was compiled by GCSA in partnership with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.  Thirty-seven independent start-up charter schools participated in research conducted between October and December of last year.

“We sent people on site so it wasn’t just a fill in the blanks thing,” Roberts said.  “We measured the size of the rooms. We saw if they had gyms or physical education facilities.  We were able to see if they had a cafeteria or not, how the children were eating if there was no food facility.”

The main finding concludes, “Charter schools are the only public schools in the state of Georgia forced to spend operating revenue on facilities.”  GCSA said, “Only 17 percent of state grant funding requested by charter schools was awarded for fiscal years 2008 through 2010.”   Just one among 37 charter schools said it had received E-SPLOST funds to assist with facilities.

Disparity was especially evident in cafeteria and physical education resources.  GCSA said 46 percent of Georgia charter school students qualify for free and reduced priced meals served at school, but just 38.9 percent of schools have proper facilities that meet federal standards.  Fifty-eight percent of charters said the school lunchroom does double duty as a gymnasium.

State law requires that public school districts should make unused facilities available to charter schools.  GCSA said, “…only 25 percent of charter schools have been able to gain access to unused space.  Of the remaining schools, one-third report unused district facilities nearby.  While the majority of these charter schools have asked permission to access unused district facilities, not one request has been granted to date.”

The report stated, “Families who choose to attend the public school that best fits their children’s educational needs should not have to do so at the expense of opportunities for participating in athletics, art, music or other programs that provide students with a well-rounded education.”

GCSA will use the report to foster consensus to fund charter school facilities with dedicated dollars that are not part of annual operating budgets.  Georgia had 74,000 charter school students last year.  That is about four percent of the statewide K-12 public school enrollment.

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

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Could National Legal Defense Fund Help Georgia Charter Schools?

Mike Klein

MACON – Hundreds of charter public school advocates who traveled here last week heard Apple founder Steve Jobs remembered, discussion about a proposed national legal defense fund to help protect charter schools that are under legal assault and they heard a glimpse about what might come after No Child Left Behind.  But if they were hoping to hear about a resolution to who can authorize charter schools in Georgia, that wasn’t happening.

Georgia – once considered a national leader in alternative authorization for charter schools – took a significant step in another direction – some say backward — in May when the state Supreme Court ruled that the Georgia Charter Schools Commission was unconstitutional.

The decision returned authorization solely to local public school district boards of education.  Fifteen schools and nearly 15,000 students affected by the ruling were given a reprieve within three months when the state board of education re-authorized them as state special schools and Governor Nathan Deal found some $10 million to reopen the doors.

But their long-term viability remains in question.  Emergency funding is good only this year.  A legal framework that would enable the state to help new charter schools open without local public school district board of education approval remains in limbo until at least the General Assembly next year.

Appearing on video Governor Deal told some 300 conference attendees, “Charters have proven to be a valuable tool in Georgia’s education portfolio and we will take the necessary steps to protect your mission.”  State schools superintendent John Barge said, “There’s probably going to be a push for a constitutional amendment.”

What that amendment might say will remain undecided for months.  It could appear on the November 2012 ballot.  First it would need two-thirds approval by the state Senate and House. Achieving General Assembly support might prove harder than convincing voters.

“We shall overcome the decision of the Supreme Court!  We shall!” Tony Roberts, CEO and president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association said to robust applause.  Roberts also pledged to double the number of charter schools in Georgia – currently 226 – within ten years.

Peter Groff, Black Alliance for Educational Options

Peter Groff, senior advisor at the Black Alliance for Educational Options and former president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, proposed creation of a national legal defense fund “that pools the greatest minds in the country together to talk about how we can figure out where legal assistance is needed, where we need to go in and fight.  Imagine what would have happened if we had a legal defense fund in place when this suit in Georgia came up.”

Groff said, “If you believe as many do that education is the civil rights issue our time then you know it is at this time in a civil rights movement when the courts come into play.  You all know that better than anyone. “I have encouraged very loudly the sector to explore every legal avenue available not only to solidify and protect but to be progressive and strategic to ensure equity across the public education spectrum.”

Barge delivered the lunchtime keynote address two days after undergoing major knee surgery.  He made his way onto the podium with crutches and an aide close at hand.  His thoughtful, well-crafted discussion of education policy began with “You guys; I appreciate what you are doing.”  Barge – then just four months on the job – played a pivotal role in helping to keep open the state’s 15 former charter commission schools after the Supreme Court decision.

Barge said he is “very confident” the U.S. Department of Education will grant Georgia’s request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind graduation mandates.  Federal officials, acting on behalf of the White House, invited all 50 states to apply for waivers.  Georgia did, and Barge traveled to Washington to submit the waiver request and discuss changes to statewide public education accountability.

State School Superintendent John Barge

Barge tried to provide a soft landing for the next graduation rate report that will be released this fall.  “Statewide we’re looking at a little over 10 percent reduction in the graduation rate.”  One year ago the state said 80 percent of high school students graduated on time.  The next report is likely to be less than 70 percent because the national formula for how states count graduation rates has changed.  Five-year graduates are no longer considered “on time.”

The superintendent also said a new career pathways emphasis will begin next fall for all high school incoming freshmen.  “College is the most expense career development program there is,” Barge said.  “Guys, in K-12 education we can do a much better job helping children find out what it is they are interested in and pursuing that.”

Roberts – the Charter Schools Association CEO and president – paused during his keynote address to honor late Apple founder Steve Jobs who passed away last Wednesday.”

“I say this sincerely, we all share sadness at the passing away of Steve Jobs, a man who started the business that brought us this (Roberts held up an IPad) in his garage.  He would have made a good charter school student or a good charter school leader.  This man Steve Jobs because of the technology that we have now is probably going to be one of the most influential people in the advance of education that we have ever known.”

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

October 10, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Governor Deal Improves State Special Charter Schools Funding

Mike Klein

Governor Nathan Deal has approved a financial rescue package that will significantly improve state funding for eight former brick-and-mortar state commission charter schools.  The schools were notified Thursday in an email from the state Department of Education.

Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, was elated when he heard the news:  “Governor Deal said at the beginning of this crisis that he was going to take care of the children in these schools and he really made it happen by encouraging the state superintendent to have a streamlined approval process for state special charter schools and now he has seen to it that those schools get full funding.”

What this means on a practical level is eight brick-and-mortar schools that were uncertain about their 2011-2012 financials can open next month assured of funding levels that they would have received from the now defunct Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  The state Supreme Court ruled the commission was unconstitutional in a widely controversial May decision.

“The state will forward fund the bricks-and-mortar state-chartered special schools for an amount equal to the average local share they would have received if they were locally approved,” said Louis Erste, charter schools division director at the state Department of Education, adding that will bring revenue to “the same amount they would have received as a locally-approved charter school in their approved attendance zone.”

Those eight brick-and-mortar schools are Atlanta Heights Charter in Atlanta, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts and Technology in Statesboro, Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton, Coweta Charter Academy in Senoia, Fulton Leadership Academy in south Fulton County, Heritage Preparatory Academy in Atlanta, Odyssey School in Newnan and Pataula Charter Academy in Edison.

Governor Nathan Deal

“We don’t know the exact dollar figure at this point,” said Erin Hames, Governor Deal’s deputy chief of staff for policy, “but (the Governor’s Office) had to make a quick decision because some of these schools were set to meet tomorrow to determine whether they could keep their doors open this fall.”

Roberts said it is his understanding the cost to the state is uncertain.  Mark Peevy, former executive director of the defunct charter schools commission, had estimated about $10 million.  But since Peevy made that estimate this spring two schools – Heron Bay Academy and Provost Academy – decided they will not open until the 2012 – 2013 school year.

Roberts also said he believes this is a one-year fix: “There is no commitment that this will continue beyond this first year.”   The decision to improve funding for brick-and-mortar state charter schools does not impact the online learning state charter special schools such as Georgia Cyber Academy and Georgia Connections Academy.

Two brick-and mortar schools – Ivy Preparatory Academy in Gwinnett County and the Museum School of Avondale Estates in DeKalb County – accepted local school district charters.

Ivy Prep and Museum School funding already includes local share dollars for their students who reside in the counties that granted charters.  To illustrate how complicated this has become; Ivy does not have full funding guaranteed for students who reside outside Gwinnett County.  That is still unresolved.  Ivy draws students from several metro counties, including DeKalb.

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

July 14, 2011 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

After Supreme Court: “How We Answer Will Define Us For Generations”

Mike Klein

Georgia became the national battleground over charter public schools alternative authorization last month when the state Supreme Court ruled the three-year-old charter schools commission is unconstitutional.  So it was not surprising that there very pointed references to that decision Tuesday when the 2011 National Charters School Conference opened in Atlanta.

“Fifteen thousand students have been left in limbo by a dreadful decision from the Georgia Supreme Court,” said National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff.  “How we answer will define us for generations.”  Groff invoked the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as he called for a “next generation of high quality schools fueled by technology.”

Moments earlier, and not entirely in jest, Georgia Charter Schools Association President Tony Roberts welcomed some 4,000 conference goers to “Georgia where anyone can grow up to be a state Supreme Court justice even if you cannot read the state Constitution.”

President Bill Clinton

Charter school educators have come from across the nation to discuss alternative authorization, digital learning applications, crisis message management, how to start and fund schools, learning accountability and literally dozens of other educationally relevant topics.

During a 45-minute address former President Bill Clinton told charter educators to “put our country back in the future business” after accepting the NAPCS inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.  Clinton described the current “food fight” in most contemporary political dialogue.  Click here for additional coverage of the former President’s address.

Tuesday’s opening session included two of the charter schools world genuine superstars, New York City educator Eva Moskowitz and Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker.

“I understood a long time ago that schools and politics are inextricably linked,” said Moskowitz who opened the first Harlem Success Academy five years ago in New York City.  “Our schools are knocking the ball out of the park which now means we are considered a threat, not only to public schools, but to the political establishment.”

Eva Moskowitz, Harlem Success Academy

The Harlem Success Academy story was chronicled in two charter school movement films, “The Lottery” and “Waiting for Superman.”  Moskowitz encountered stiff opposition from the New York City teachers union and also some community groups.  Two years ago the New York Times cited Harlem Success Academy as #1 in math statewide among all 3,500 public schools.  Six more Success Academies have followed in just five years, with plans to open 40 more.

“We are tasked with building a better mousetrap, introducing innovation to a sector that has long resisted it,” Moskowitz said. “I believe we are on the cusp of a golden era in education.  I raise the question, what is possible for our children?  I don’t know but it is our job to find out.  We must innovate every day.  We must resist the temptation to do things the same way they have always been done and we must question our own perception of what is possible.”

Newark Mayor Cory Booker is well known for creating a partnership with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who contributed $100 million to improve Newark student success and champion great teachers.  Booker is energy unleashed; his magnetism compels attention.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker

“We are in the most important fight for justice in generations,” Booker said.  “Audacity, audacity, always audacity.  We have underestimated the profound genius, the ability of our children.  We have become comfortable with failure and it is time for a wake-up call.  We are here to disturb the comfortable.  We were not born for mediocrity.  We were born to stand out.”

Booker issued fair warning to underperforming schools:  “We cannot accept mediocrity or failure in the charter movement.  I don’t care how a school came into existence.  I distinguish between schools of excellence, and I distinguish between schools that suck.  If that school happens to be a charter school then that school should either improve or move out of the way and let somebody else do the job.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman will speak Wednesday.  Duncan’s address will be by satellite from Washington.  The conference ends Thursday with a rally at the State Capitol, across from the Supreme Court.  Click here to learn more about the 2011 National Charter Schools Conference.

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

June 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Step Forward and Long Road Ahead for Georgia Commission Schools

Mike Klein

Get ready.  Get set.  Go back to (your favorite charter) school.

Now that they’ve been thrown a parachute, what’s next for a handful of former state commission charter schools and nearly 16,000 students?  The search for that answer leads to other questions:  Do you mean sooner or later?  And, would Georgia voters be inclined to embrace the idea charter schools might help the state overcome its mediocre education reputation?

“I’ve been called a lot of things in life.  This is the first time I’ve been called unconstitutional,” Mark Peevy said during his testimony at Friday morning’s Senate education sub-committee hearing.  Peevy is executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, which the state Supreme Court threw out in a decision announced last month.

Senate and House legislators, the state Department of Education, commission schools, parent groups and the Georgia Charter Schools Association have worked for three weeks to clear a path that would enable all 16 state commission charter schools to reopen this August.

“There is no reason why we can’t take care of this quickly,” state schools superintendent John Barge said Friday.  It was his first public event statement since the Supreme Court decision.

Here’s what you can expect over the next several weeks.  Some brick and mortar commission schools have applied to receive one-year charters from local districts.  This recognizes time is short and shuttering these schools is not good for students and it is terrible public relations.

Standing Room Only Friday at Senate Education Hearing on State Commission Charter Schools

“It’s not good when you make the New York Times for the wrong reasons,” Senate education chair Fran Millar told hundreds who attended Friday’s hearing.  “We’ve got to find a way to make this thing work.  We’re being looked at by the world to see how we deal with this situation.”

Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cherokee county school systems are working closely with commission schools.  The state Board of Education will meet this month to vote on granting special school status to other schools that still need charters.  That would include the online learning schools.

“We are urging local boards wherever possible to approve these schools, as many as they can,” Barge said. “That is going to be the best short-term solution at this point in time.”

There is a lot of work to be done on finances.  Reopening these schools with local charters or as state special schools will require innovative combinations of federal, state, local and potentially private dollars.  Georgia cannot use any of this year’s $100 million Race to the Top grant, but it will seek other federal support and the Charter Schools Association will explore private foundation funding.

Nobody knows for certain how much Georgia’s education image was tarnished by last month’s Supreme Court decision.  Nor is it possible to measure how the decision will impact the charter schools movement.  The Georgia Charter Schools Association estimates charter schools of all kinds will enroll 77,000 students statewide this fall, barely 2.5% of public school students.

“This is a setback because the eyes of the nation have been on us thinking that Georgia would be a good place for education management organizations to partner with people,” said Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “This is going to put some reluctance on that, to say the least.”

The quick fix that would enable commission schools to reopen this fall is a one-year or perhaps two-year solution at best.  The next move belongs to the Legislature which must decide whether it wants to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 2012 ballot.

Voters could be asked to re-establish the commission concept, or perhaps allow the state to expand the definition of state special schools.  There is no guarantee how voters would react.

Last November voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have imposed a small annual motor vehicle fee to completely fund a statewide trauma care network.  Central and South Georgia voters who would have benefited the most from new trauma centers defeated the initiative.

How will voters respond next year when they are asked for permission to impose additional sales taxes to fund long lists of regional transportation projects.  These are being called critical to Georgia’s future, but in a state with high unemployment and many more folks underemployed, will voters be inclined to raise their sales taxes?  Nobody can say.

Strategies to provide short-term relief to the former commission schools are a good step forward.  But they are far from a solution and that is recognized by everyone involved.  Senator Millar said this about going forward, “I hope at this point that we don’t have any more litigation.”

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

June 4, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment