Mike Klein Online

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

What Is Real Agenda Behind Challenge to Charter Schools Commission?

Mike Klein

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.”

Amen.

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.)

March 22, 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