Georgia's high court hears Charter School arguments

The Supreme Court of Georgia heard arguments Tuesday afternoon in a case that may determine the fate of charter schools throughout the state.

Seven public school districts, including Henry's and Griffin-Spalding County's, are involved in the case which challenges the constitutionality of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a state agency established law in 2008 to authorize, or deny public charters for schools.

Earlier this year, the districts filed suit against the commission, the State Department of Education, and three charter schools. They argued that the law which created the commission was unconstitutional, partly because it uses local tax revenues to fund the charter schools without local taxpayers' approval.

However, in May, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob ruled that the commission is constitutional.

Henry and Griffin-Spalding County joined the charter schools lawsuit following the commission's approval of the charter school known as Heron Bay Academy. The school was denied a charter both school districts in 2009.

Henry County Board of Education Chairman Ray Hudalla said the existence of the commission ties the hands of local school boards, who prefer to decide how public funds for education are spent.

Hudalla said public charter schools, as authorized the commission, stand to receive portions of state funding that would otherwise go to local school districts. The funding portions are based on a per-student formula.

"We believe that should be up to local school boards," Hudalla said. "The issue is not that we don't support charter schools. The issue comes down to the financial part of it ... I hope, for the sake of school system funding, that we will win [the case]."

The state's supreme court summary of the charter schools case, which is available online, acknowledged that Georgia's constitution "grants local boards of education the authority to ‘establish and maintain' school systems, and prohibits the creation of any independent school systems."

However, the summary also points out that the "General Assembly may provide law for the creation of special schools in such areas as may require them … [but] no bonded indebtedness may be incurred, nor a school tax levied for the support of special schools without the approval of a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon in each of the systems affected."

Charter school funding is based on a per-student cost formula which the state subtracts the amount paid per student in local tax revenues from its Quality Basic Education formula for education funding, explained Mark Peevy, executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

The state's funding formula, Peevy noted, does not include revenues from local taxes that support capital improvement projects.

"Our stance certainly is that the commission is constitutional," Peevy said. "The legislature is allowed to create these schools based on the constitution, and funding — whether or not local funding — will be used to fund these schools."

Peevy said he advocates for public charter schools because they offer an alternative to traditional education, and traditional educational methods.

"I think charter schools certainly provide options that are not available to parents in traditional public schools," said the commission's executive director.

Peevy said public charter schools are different from traditional public schools in that they operate under specific terms of a charter agreement.

"A key difference is accountability," he continued. "There is a specific path to shutdown a non-performing charter school. It's an opportunity to choose success, and if success is not happening, then we have the opportunity to choose another direction."

Peevy expects to have an answer within the next few weeks.