Charter School Referendum about Local Control, State Funding


With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.

(APN) ATLANTA — During the November 06, 2012 General Election, Georgia voters will be presented with a referendum over whether to allow a Georgia Charter School Commission (GCSC) to override the decisions of local school boards to approve and create charter schools in Georgia.

If approved, the Commission–which was found unconstitutional in a May 2011 ruling of the Supreme Court of Georgia–would be up and running again.  While any schools approved by the Commission would not be eligible for local funding from local property tax revenues, the schools would likely receive funding from the State of Georgia, even more state funding than locally approved schools typically receive from the state.

The upcoming referendum was established by the Georgia Legislature this year, by a two-thirds majority passage of HR 1162, which involved the support of some Democrats and most Republicans.

The current wording on the November 2012 ballot reads “Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?”

The wording is misleading because local approval is already allowed; state approval of special charter schools by the State Board of Education is already allowed; it is state approval of non-special charter schools by a third entity, the GCSC, that would become allowed by Constitutional amendment should the referendum pass.

On May 16, 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the Georgia Charter School Commission Act of 2008 as unconstitutional in a four to three vote, in the case of Gwinnett County School District et al. v. Cox et al.

The majority opinion was authored by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein, with Justices Robert Benham, P. Harris Hines, and Hugh Thompson concurring.  Justices Harold Melton, David Nahmias, and George Carley, who has since retired from the Court, dissented.

In 2008, the GCSC was created by the Legislature, after complaints that some local school boards did not approve charter school applications, preventing competition by charters with public schools.  The GCSC was set up to to approve and fund non-special charter schools, even if local boards objected to them.

Seven school systems, including Atlanta, Bulloch County, Candler County, Coweta County, DeKalb County, Griffin-Spalding, and Gwinnett County, had sued over the 2008 law creating the GCSC.

Chief Justice Hunstein wrote that the 1983 Constitution gives exclusive local control of general primary and secondary K-12 public education to the local school boards.

Hunstein ruled the GCSC-created general K-12 charter schools, which were commissioned under the guise of “special schools,” violated the 1983 Constitution.

“Authority is granted to county and area boards of education to establish and maintain public schools within their limits,” Georgia’s Constitution states.

The Constitution also states the “General Assembly may provide by law for the creation of special schools in such areas as may require them and may provide for the participation of local boards of education in the establishment of such schools under such terms and conditions.”

However, the majority ruled that the charter schools being approved by the GCSC did not qualify as “special schools,” which were never intended by the Legislature to be “competitors with locally controlled schools in regard to the education of general K-12 students.”  Examples of special schools would be “vocational trade schools, schools for exceptional children, and schools for adult education.”

To create a duplicate school system of charter schools to “compete with locally controlled schools for the same pool of students educated with the same limited pool of tax funds,” is therefore not acceptable, according to the ruling.

The ruling did not affect most of the charters that had already open serving over 65,000 students in Georgia during the 2011-2012 school year, according to Dorie Turner Nolt, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education.  These unaffected schools included about fifteen State-chartered special schools that had been approved by the State Board of Education and about one hundred that had been approved by a local school board.

It did affect sixteen charter schools approved by the GCSC with over 16,000 students, including the Atlanta Heights Charter School, Chattahoochee Hills Charter School, Cherokee Charter Academy, Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology, Coweta Charter Academy, Fulton Leadership Academy, Georgia Connections Academy, Georgia Cyber Academy, Heritage Preparatory Academy, Heron Bay Academy, Ivy Preparatory Academy, Pataula Charter Academy, Peachtree Hope Charter School, Provost Academy Georgia, and the Museum School of Avondale Estates.

According to Nolt, after the ruling of the Supreme Court, the State Board of Education took action to temporarily approve the impacted charter schools for one year, seeing as how students were enrolled to begin school again that Fall.

“They were named state special charter schools.  Any school the Board creates is a state special school,” Nolt said.

Since then, some of those sixteen schools have applied for state special status and others have been working with their local school boards to receive local approval.  Some have already received state or local approval; others have not yet received it, according to Nolt.  A couple of the sixteen schools, which had been about to open up in the Fall of 2011, chose not to open, Nolt said.

Fulton Leadership Academy is one of the sixteen impacted charter schools that later sought local approval by the Board of Education of Fulton County; however, it was denied in June 2012.

On the other hand, another one of the sixteen, the Museum School of Avondale Estates, sought approval from the DeKalb County Board of Education in June 2011, one month after the ruling, and received it.

If voters approve the referendum this November, additional legislation that was approved this year, HB 797, will take effect.  HB 797 opens the door for state funding of GSCS commissioned schools.

John Barge, Georgia’s School Superintendent elected in 2010 and a Republican, said in a press release on August 14, 2012, that he “cannot support the creation of a new and costly state bureaucracy that takes away local control of schools and unnecessarily duplicates the good work already being done by local districts, the Georgia Department of Education, and the state Board of Education.”

“What’s more, this constitutional amendment would direct taxpayer dollars into the pockets of out-of-state, for-profit charter school companies whose schools perform no better than traditional public schools and locally approved charter schools (and worse, in some cases),” Barge wrote.

“Four billion dollars has been cut from Georgia schools since 2008,” Nolt noted.

“Until all of our public school students are in school for a full 180-day school year, until essential services like student transportation and student support can return to effective levels, and until teachers regain jobs with full pay for a full school year, we should not redirect one more dollar away from Georgia’s local school districts – much less an additional $430 million in state funds, which is what it would cost to add seven new state charter schools per year over the next five years,” Barge wrote.

In other words, even though it is state funding and not local funding that GCSC-commissioned schools would receive, that still means there is apparently state funding sitting there that could be spent on local schools, even after state-funding for local schools has been so drastically cut in recent years.

Since 1995, local school boards have created charter schools, but some school districts have been skeptical of competition for students and tax dollars.  The GCSC was created in 2008, after in 2007, 26 petitions were submitted to local school boards and 26 were denied, according to the Associated Press.

75 percent of the time, the GCSC made the same decision that the local board did, which was not to approve the charter, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  The GCSC only approved 25 percent of all charter petitions, even if those same charters did not go before the local school boards, but instead only the GCSC.

The City of Atlanta has more charter schools than any other jurisdiction in the State of Georgia, including the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School, Atlanta Preparatory Academy, Charles R. Drew Charter School, the Intown Academy, the Kindezi School, KIPP Atlanta Collegiate, KIPP STRIVE Academy, KIPP Vision, KIPP WAYS, Wesley International Academy, and two new charter schools that have begun operating this year, including another KIPP Strive Academy and the Latin Academy Charter School.

There are two additional charter schools in Atlanta that were approved originally by the GCSC, and since received approval from the State Board of Education, including the Atlanta Heights Charter School and Heritage Preparatory Academy, according to Keith Bromery, spokesperson for Atlanta Public Schools.

There are also three state-approved virtual charter schools that are located in Atlanta, including the Georgia Connections Academy, the Georgia Cyber Academy, and the Provost Academy of Georgia.

One Atlanta charter school, Tech High School, closed this year.

Another Atlanta charter school, KIPP Vision Primary, has been approved, but has not opened yet.

According to Bromery, over the years the Atlanta Board of Education has rejected a number of charter school applications as well, including two that later went on to get GCSC approval to open, Atlanta Heights Charter School and Heritage Preparatory Academy.  

Others included Dreammakers, METSouth, Recording Arts Charter School, ASBTCI, Atlanta Charter Academy, David T. Howard Charter High School, Futures Bright, Georgia High School for Accelerated Learning, Heritage Academy, Peachtree Hope, LAMS, MATH, WEDJ, GUMA, Seventh & Sorou, Barbara Lewis King Academy, International Academy of Atlanta Public Schools, Paul S. Morton Academy, and Westside Charter School.

There are currently fifteen state-chartered special schools under the State Board of Education across the state, including Atlanta Heights Charter School, Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology, Cherokee Charter Academy, Coweta Charter Academy, Fulton Leadership Academy, Georgia Connections Academy – Virtual, Georgia Cyber Academy, Heritage Preparatory Academy, Ivy Preparatory Academy, Ivy Preparatory Academy at DeKalb, Ivy Preparatory Academy Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Mountain Education Center, Odyssey School, Pataula Charter Academy, Provost Academy, and Scholars Academy Charter School.


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