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Court strikes down Ga. Charter School Commission

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Charter school supporters now are awaiting guidance from Georgia's Attorney General, following a 4-3 ruling by the state's highest court in overturning the law which created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

The commission is an agency established through House Bill 881, in 2008, to authorize, or deny, public school charters.

The Georgia Supreme Court released its decision Monday, which includes this excerpt: "Based on these 'conditions existing' at the time the 1983 Constitution was adopted, and in light of the reaffirmation in that constitution of the authority granted local boards of education 'to establish and maintain public schools within their limits,' Art. VIII, Sec. V, Par. I, the 'special schools' language in Art. VIII, Sec. V, Par. VII (a) cannot be interpreted either as a relinquishment of the historical exclusivity of control vested in local boards of education over general K-12 schools or as a carte blanche authorization for the General Assembly to create its own general K-12 schools so as to duplicate the efforts of, or compete with locally controlled schools for the same pool of students educated with the same limited pool of tax funds."

This section of the court's ruling responds to arguments used by school boards, saying House Bill 881 sanctioned the diversion of public funds from local school districts to charter schools.

"This is truly a victory for taxpayers and public school systems in Georgia, who serve over 92 percent of students in our state," said Griffin-Spalding County School Superintendent Curtis Jones.

His is one of seven public school districts, including Henry County, that challenged the constitutionality of the commission last year. The districts filed suit against the commission, the state department of education, and three charter schools, stating the law that created the commission was unconstitutional, partly because it uses local tax revenue to fund the charter schools without local taxpayers' approval.

Efforts to reach State Rep. Jan Jones (R-Milton), who authored the charter school law that created the commission, were unsuccessful.

School officials in Henry County did not respond to calls, following the announcement of the Georgia Supreme Court ruling. However, in the past, they have taken the position that the existence of the commission ties the hands of local school boards, who prefer to decide how public funds for education are spent.

Now the tide has turned.

Dissenters wonder about the future of charter schools in Georgia.

"Our greatest fear is that this ruling could have the impact of closing all commission-approved schools," said Tony Roberts, the chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission.

Local school boards, such as Henry County's, have maintained that public charter schools, as authorized, stand to receive portions of state funding that would otherwise go to local school districts.

"The issue is not that we don't support charter schools. The issue comes down to the financial part of it," said former Henry County School Board Chairman Ray Hudalla, during a 2010 interview with the Henry Daily Herald.

School boards have consistently argued that the state's constitution grants local boards of education the authority to "establish and maintain" school districts, and prohibits the creation of any independent school districts.

Supporters of Monday's ruling roundly endorsed the decision. "The Georgia School Boards Association [GSBA] is pleased with the state Supreme Court's strong endorsement today of the role of locally elected boards of education," said GSBA Communications Director Laura Reilly.

While staunch charter school advocates said they are disheartened by the decision, they await guidance on moving forward. "The Georgia Charter Schools Commission believes today's decision is the wrong one for the 15,000 students expected to be served this fall in Commission schools," said Mark Peevy, of the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, in a written response.

Peevy said the commission stands ready to work with state agencies and officials to mitigate the impact the court decision may have on charter schools. State School Superintendent John Barge said he will work closely with the State Board of Education to see what flexibility can be offered for these schools.

"With today's Supreme Court ruling against the legality of the Charter Schools Commission," Barge said, "the state stands ready to help in whatever way necessary to ensure that the education of the students in these schools is not compromised."

"Today's ruling was a direct blow to educational and economic opportunity for many Georgia students and families," added Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. "It's a disappointment that government budgets take precedence over academic excellence and making available the best education options for Georgia's children."

The decision does not impact the 65,000 students attending charter schools approved by their local school districts, according to charter school officials.

In Clayton County, for example, there are no commission-created charter schools, said Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White.

White said the school district has two Local Education Agency (LEA) charter schools. They were created with the approval of the Clayton County Board of Education, as well as the State Board of Education. They are The Elite Scholars Academy Charter School, in Morrow, and the Unidos Dual Language Charter School, in Forest Park.

"We have monitored the situation very closely, and we join other school districts across the state, to stand ready to offer education opportunities to students affected by this decision," said White.

The charter school ruling leaves unclear the fate of 16 other commission-approved charter schools which currently serve about 5,000 pupils.

Officials said 14 of the schools are in operation, and two are slated to open this fall, including the Heron Bay Academy in Locust Grove, which was denied a charter by both the Henry County and the Griffin-Spalding County school districts in 2009.

GSBA officials said they have a long history of supporting charter schools approved by local boards of education.

"Charter schools, approved by local boards of education, that focus on increasing student achievement through unique programs, can be a strong addition to the diverse educational opportunities offered by local school systems," said GSBA President James Pope.

Staff writer Curt Yeomans contributed to this article.