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Georgia School Choice Advocates Are Not Going Down Without a Fight

Mike Klein

Georgia school choice advocates are not going down without a fight.  Some are going back to the legislative table and some are taking to the streets.  On the other side of the coin, there are those who believe the Georgia Supreme Court got it right in Monday’s split decision opinion that sidelined the state charter schools commission.

Late Monday afternoon we learned a Senate sub-committee will be named to study the Supreme Court decision and propose fixes, perhaps this summer.  “The thing we are counting on is the special session,” said Tony Roberts, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “That comes up in August.”

The year’s second General Assembly session could become hyper-hectic when lawmakers return to Atlanta to redraw legislative district lines, possibly try tax reform again, and now, just perhaps, an attempt to address charter schools questions created by the Supreme Court ruling.

And there are several questions, including how to keep funds flowing to existing schools and the impact on new schools that were scheduled to open this fall.  The state commission planned to have 17 schools operating with as many as 16,500 students starting in August.  Notably, the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein contains no effective date.

Supporters predict thousands will descend on the Washington Street side of the State Capitol on Tuesday morning to protest Monday’s 4-3 decision.  Governor Nathan Deal is in Europe on a trade mission and the General Assembly is out of town but protestors, no doubt, will be easily heard at the Supreme Court which is just across the street from the Capitol.

Earlier, Roberts at GCSA described the decision as “bad news for thousands of children and parents in Georgia who hoped for a brighter future with their children in a Commission charter school.  This is a case where the majority is NOT right.  The minority opinion of the Supreme Court contained in the 75 pages of dissenting opinion is the one that is right.”

Schools are asking, what to do next?  “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Matt Arkin, head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 online learning students.  GCA was approved to become a state commission charter school this fall.  “Until we hear otherwise we’re going to continue with our plans. The ruling today certainly has not changed that commitment.”

Monday’s opinion – filed seven months after oral arguments – said the General Assembly overstepped its bounds when it passed a 2008 state charter schools commission bill that was signed into law by Governor Sonny Perdue.  The Supreme Court decision means state charters would not receive funding this fall, and perhaps sooner.

Mark Peevy, executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission said his office is coordinating with the offices of Governor Deal and Attorney General Sam Olens, along with the State Board of Education, to understand the ruling and mitigate negative impacts.

“We will be working on a solution to help our current schools bridge the gap until we have that fix in place.”  Peevy estimated that could cost $30 million-to-$40 million.  Peevy admitted he does not have a great answer for parents who wonder what’s next.  “The parent has to take a look at what they want to see happen with their child and move forward with those options.”

While crestfallen school choice and charter school supporters re-group, others view the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein as confirmation that House Bill 881 got it wrong three years ago.

“One thing that does seem clear is the Supreme Court has held the General Assembly may not create its own charter schools for the general K-12 population,” said attorney Tom Cox, who represented DeKalb County and the Atlanta Public Schools before the state Supreme Court.

“This has never been about the wisdom and viability of charter schools, at least speaking for my clients, Atlanta and DeKalb.  They have approved and authorized and are currently operating within their districts more charter schools than any other district in Georgia,” Cox said.  “This has always been about who makes the decision about which new charter schools will be approved.”

Georgia joins a short list of states whose highest courts rejected the creation of a state charter schools commission.  The list consists of just Georgia and Florida.   A challenge to the Florida Schools of Excellence closed the state charter commission closed before any schools opened.

Arkin at Georgia Cyber Academy remains optimistic.  “Every state that ever had the appetite to do this has eventually done it. This is probably a hiccup toward the eventual solution. Now we just need to wait for some direction from the state Board of Education and from the governor to help us all make sure our students don’t get penalized.”

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

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May 16, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does Supreme Court Charters Case Put Other School Funds At Risk?

Mike Klein

Did the Georgia Supreme Court delay its long-awaited opinion in the high profile state charter schools commission case because of the potential far-reaching impact on education equalization dollars received by three-fourths of Georgia public school districts?

“This case is filled with a lot of thorny issues and it’s one that is requiring more deliberation by the justices,” said Tony Roberts, chief executive officer at the Georgia Charter Schools Association.  “My guess is there are so many ramifications about any decision that they have to consider not just the constitutionality of the case, but also the ramifications.”

Roberts predicted a Supreme Court decision to strike down the state Charter Schools Commission funding model “will affect some previous legislation as well, for instance, equalization.  If they say the state cannot reallocate money (to charter commission schools) then equalization will not happen as well and there will be a lot of school systems unhappy about that.”

Equalization … like charter schools commission funding … is a unique funding model created by the General Assembly to move state education dollars into classrooms.  Georgia has 180 public school systems; 75% receive equalization dollars based on their property tax base.  The 25% of school districts with the highest property tax base do not receive extra funds.

Most observers expected the Supreme Court to rule this week in a case that would decide the landscape for state-approved charter schools of both brick-and-mortar and virtual varieties.

Three years ago the 2008 General Assembly created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission and gave it the power to authorize charter school applications that were rejected by local boards.  Legislators also gave the commission authority to transfer dollars from public school districts to state charters.  Gwinnett sued and six other districts joined the suit as co-plaintiffs.

Last May, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled the General Assembly was within its constitutional right to create the Charter Schools Commission and its funding model.

Then in October the seven plaintiff districts appealed to the Supreme Court.  They asked the seven justices to overturn the decision and declare the commission legislation unconstitutional. There also is a question about whether commission charters qualify as “special schools.”

Wednesday morning the Court sent an electronic mail which said that “for good cause” the case would be “hereby extended until further order” of the Court.  A spokesperson said the unusual order gives the Court flexibility to rule at any point, which could mean soon or not soon at all.

Attorneys on both sides were caught somewhat flat-footed by the announcement.

Attorney Josh Moore represents Gwinnett public schools, which is the lead plaintiff.  “All I told them was not to read too much into it,” Moore said Wednesday afternoon.  “The Court is supposed to rule by the end of the second term and they just decided they need more time.”

Bruce Brown represents charter schools.  “We understand the Court has the authority to issue its opinion at any time and it could come right away or the delay could be substantial,” Brown said.  “We do know the charter school case is the only case which they extended the term.”

Attorney Tom Cox represents the Atlanta and DeKalb public school systems.  Cox could not recall another case in which the Supreme Court announced it would delay a ruling. “It’s totally new to my experience.  I couldn’t even speculate about what if anything it means other than they are granting themselves an extension,” Cox said.  “Your guess is as good as mine.”

The “special schools” question is intriguing.  A 1983 state constitution amendment defined “special schools” as being for disabled persons. Charter schools did not exist in 1983.  A Supreme Court ruling that favors the commission would expand the “special schools” definition.

The Supreme Court found itself boxed into a calendar corner.  The case was filed in September.  The Court is required to decide all cases within two terms, which almost always means the decision is reached within six months.  But with the opinion clearly not ready, the Court took the most unusual step to issue an order granting itself more time.

“Had they not done that I believe the lower court order would stand,” said Moore, who represents Gwinnett.  “This case is too important to do that so regardless of which way they rule, they are going to provide a rationale for the ruling.  It underlines the complexity of the case.”  The plaintiffs are Gwinnett, Atlanta, Bulloch, Candler, DeKalb, Griffin-Spalding and Henry.

Mark Peevy is executive director of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.  Peevy said the 17 charter schools “don’t have any questions that they didn’t have yesterday.  We’re still at the same spot.  We certainly believe the Superior Court was right and we are expecting the Supreme Court to uphold that decision.” State charters will enroll up to 16,500 students next fall.

“Our approach and our belief is we’re going to be here next year,” said Matt Arkin, Head of School at Georgia Cyber Academy which has 6,500 online students.  “GCA is not going anywhere and I hope we can say the same about all Commission schools.”

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

March 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia House Throws Roadblock into Virtual Schools Funding Plan

Mike Klein

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission knew it had a problem last year when two companies that operate online learning schools withdrew from the state because of inadequate per pupil funding.  Then in December, the commission changed funding levels for next year students but that work may have been torpedoed by the House spending bill passed last week.

The House spending bill would provide $5,200 in state per pupil funding for students who leave traditional brick-and-mortar schools to enroll in an online learning school.  That is $600 less than the $5,800 level that the charter schools commission board approved in December.  Both figures would be more than this year’s approximate $3,400 funding level.

The House vote came as a complete surprise.  “From an official standpoint, no one talked to me, no one talked to the commission,” GCSC executive director Mark Peevy said on Monday.  “As the House was approving the budget last week this item popped up and made it through.

“We spent a lot of time looking at the number and firmly believe we had the right number with all the right folks at the table,” Peevy said.  “It is certainly within the purview of the appropriations committee and the House as a whole to do this if they want to.”

Commission staff spent last summer and fall working to determine a proper state funding level for students after two online schools – Kaplan and Provost – withdrew from Georgia.  Staff consulted with national experts, reviewed alternatives with state budget officials, met closely with political leaders and they kept constant communications open to virtual school operators.

The $5,800 per pupil funding level approved in December was considered a good compromise if somewhat below the $6,500 national average.  There was consensus on the commission board and among education companies that the state had done what it could inside a very tough budget.  The commission also thought it had buy-in across the street at the State Capitol.

Matt Arkin is head of school at Georgia Cyber Academy, which is the state’s largest online learning venture with 6,500 students this year and 8,500 planned next fall.  He described the House vote last Friday as “another broadside” in the attempt to get fair per pupil funding.

“Virtual schools and all the Commission schools are part of QBE (the state’s education funding formula),” Arkin said.  “We’re not a separate allotment anywhere.  What’s the drive behind this?  What’s to be gained?  What’s the motivation to leave even more money back at the schools these students won’t even be at in the fall?”

The House spending bill is not the absolute final word.  The Senate education appropriations committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon.  “I am fairly certain this will be part of the conversation,” GCSC executive director Peevy said.  The funding decision could come down to another compromise during the House – Senate spending bill conference process.

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

March 14, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

State Charter Schools Seem Poised to Receive Funding Boost

Mike Klein

Georgia could become a more attractive location for charter schools Thursday after the state Charter Schools Commission board votes on a proposal to increase state per pupil funding by 80% from $3,200 to $5,800 per year. Georgia’s current reimbursement rate is among the lowest nationwide; the new rate would move the state toward the middle.

Full-time online school charter funding fluctuates nationally. This month Louisiana approved $7,000 per pupil for two new charter schools.  Pennsylvania has paid up to $8,100 per pupil and South Carolina joins Georgia on the low end at $3,300 per pupil. Eleven states provide between $5,000 and $7,500 in per pupil reimbursement, according to a Georgia Cyber Academy national analysis.

There is a definite air of optimism that Georgia is about to move forward with a compromise that would be financially acceptable to charter school operators and state government budget and education policy makers who have struggled with this issue for nearly three years.

“We’re thrilled,” said Mickey Revenaugh, co-founder and senior vice president of Connections Academy, a national provider of online learning resources. Connections Academy is one of 17 charter school providers with an application to open a new 2011 year charter school in Georgia.  The board will also vote on those applications when it meets Thursday.

“I anticipate that tomorrow we will have a real decision on the funding level,” Charter Schools Commission executive director Mark Peevy told the Public Policy Foundation on Wednesday. “I want folks to understand we didn’t pick a number out of the air. We didn’t decide arbitrarily. We did have a process. We looked at a lot of data. We had a lot of collaboration.”

Georgia Charter Schools Association chief programming officer Andrew Lewis said the $5,800 level is “a reasonable compromise. I was hoping to see something between $6,000 to $6,500 so at $5,800, while it is maybe a little bit short, this is a very good jumping off place.”

The Georgia Charter Schools Commission was established by the 2008 General Assembly. The commission operates inside the state Department of Education. It can authorize new schools and direct state funds to charter schools even when local boards of education denied charter applications.

Two disputes arose almost immediately and continue today. Seven school districts sued to have the Charter Schools Commission be declared unconstitutional and to deny its authority to reallocate education dollars when students leave traditional local public schools for public charter schools.

The challenge by Atlanta, Gwinnett, DeKalb and four smaller school systems was denied by a Fulton County trial court judge in May. The districts appealed to the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments were heard in October and a ruling is expected soon, meaning weeks or months.

Discussion about funding levels has percolated since the start but it boiled over in June when two charter school operators withdrew from Georgia after their applications were approved. Both national education companies said they could not operate at $3,500 per pupil reimbursement.

This triggered an internal review that began, charter schools commission executive director Peevy said, with recognition that “virtual schooling can be delivered in a number of different ways. There is not a single sole example of what a virtual school budget should look like.” Fiscal and policy analysts from throughout state government were asked to compare individual charter school budgets.

Then the commission sought national perspective from the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) which recommends that charter schools should be reimbursed at 65% of the traditional brick and mortar pupil rate. Peevy said the $5,800 proposed rate that will be considered Thursday is approximately 65% of Georgia’s $8,800 per pupil cost.

This year Georgia has 2,400 pupils enrolled in eight state charter commission public schools. Seven offer K-8 curriculum; Charter Conservatory in Statesboro also offers high school courses.

Mickey Revenaugh

Connections Academy has been working on a Georgia charter schools strategy for eight years. Revenaugh said the $5,800 number is “slightly on the skinny side of adequate but within range.” If approved on Thursday, a new Georgia Connections Academy would serve 500 students next fall, “a tiny drop in the bucket to the number who are interested,” said Revenaugh, who also is an iNACOL national board member. Connections Academy would have an Atlanta-area office.

Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Provost Academy are the two schools that triggered the review when they backed out in June.  Both have told Peevy they might be back if funding improves.  “I certainly anticipate both of them will want to move forward,” he said, “but I don’t have a guarantee.”

Thursday’s 10:00am meeting will be held in the state Department of Education board room at the Twin Towers government office building across from the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta. The meeting is open to the public.

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

December 15, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia High School Students Lose Two Online Education Options

This article was published by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

Georgia high school students who would like to pursue full-time online education options may have seen their hopes diminished this week.  Two companies that were approved to open online high schools in August will cancel because they believe the financial model offered by the state does not work.  This is a punch to the gut for advocates of online education in Georgia.

Last month the Georgia Charter School Commission approved Kaplan Academy of Georgia and Provost Academy Georgia with the understanding that coursework costs would need to fit into available state funding, estimated at about $3,500 per pupil.  Provost planned to enroll 800 high school students and Kaplan planned 460 students. Continue reading

July 14, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Georgia Expands State-Chartered Virtual Schools

Online education opportunities will expand for hundreds of K-12 students this fall in Georgia after the state’s charter schools commission approved two new schools.  The Friday (June 18) vote will increase the number of state charter schools from eight to ten, an embryonic figure but a move in the right direction toward much needed education choice.

More than 1.65 million Georgia students attend traditional public schools; 65,000 attend charter schools.  Just 430 attended two state charter schools this year.  Six new charters were already scheduled to open this fall before Friday’s decision that approved two virtual charter schools. Continue reading

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment