Did Georgia Lawmakers Create State’s New Charter School Mess

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Parents and supporters of 16 charter schools responded this morning to a Georgia Supreme Court ruling with a rally on the steps of the state Capitol. They could do little, however, to change the likelihood that yesterday’s court decision will end up shuttering all 16 schools — half of which already are open, half that were scheduled to open this fall.

“What I want you to do is keep coming back to the Capitol day after day until you find 120 people in the house and 38 senators that will say ‘yes’” to a constitutional amendment that would negate the ruling, state Sen. Chip Rogers told this morning’s crowd, which was estimated at around 300.

Even if a constitutional amendment did pass, it couldn’t become law before 2012. So unless the high court reverses itself, the schools will have to close.

The ruling doesn’t affect more than 150 charter schools around the state that were approved by local school districts. But more than 7,000 students already are attending the so-called “commission charter schools” — charter schools that were set up by the state under a 2008 law; that number had been expected to double when additional commission schools opened this fall.

By a 4-3 decision issued Monday, the justices found unconstitutional the law that allows the state commission to divert local tax revenue to create charter schools.

In her majority opinion, Chief Justice Carole Hunstein observed that state “constitutions, past and present, have limited governmental authority over the public education of Georgia’s children to that level of government closest and most responsive to the taxpayers and parents of the children being educated. The constitutional history of Georgia could not be more clear that, as to general K-12 public education, local boards of education have the exclusive authority to fulfill one of the ‘primary obligation[s] of the State of Georgia,’ namely, ‘[t]he provision of an adequate public education for the citizens.’”

According to one longtime follower of education in Georgia, the ruling shouldn’t have surprised lawmakers. In an article headlined “Lawmakers to the rescue of charters? Didn’t they cause this problem in the first place?” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Maureen Downey, wrote that the state Legislature passed the bill setting up the commission “despite warnings from legal experts that the bill trespassed on local control of schools, a responsibility embedded in the state constitution.”

Lawmakers approved the bill anyway, agreeing with charter school advocates that too many districts were rejecting petitions for charter schools. School districts quickly sued, arguing that the state was diverting money from local systems and forcing them to fire or layoff teachers.

As Downey writes: “The bill essentially provided a back door for the state to divert local dollars to fund charter schools that local school boards did not want. While there was resistance by some local school boards to charters, circumventing the state constitution was not the best response, according to the state Supreme Court ruling today.”



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