Georgia Legislature Considers New Help for Charter Schools

Published April 1, 2008

Georgia charter schools–which are public schools of choice–must be approved by a local school board or the Georgia Board of Education, but that might change if a bill passed by the state House of Representatives on January 31 becomes law.

State representatives passed House Bill 881 by a margin of 119 to 48 two days after the House Education Committee passed it by a margin of 22-4, with support from both Republicans and Democrats.

“Georgia families want better and more public education choices than an attendance zone,” said state Rep. Jan Jones (R-Alpharetta), the bill’s primary sponsor. “This legislation will give families more opportunities to choose public schools that fit their children’s needs.”

Making Changes

Under current law, first enacted in 1993, groups seeking to establish a charter school in Georgia must get approval from a local school board or the Georgia Board of Education (GBOE). Charter schools approved by local school boards receive the same per-pupil funding as other public schools in the district, but those approved solely by the GBOE aren’t eligible for it. They receive only the funds that would normally go to a charter school from the federal and state government.

Under the proposed law, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission–the agency the bill proposes to create to authorize new charters–would have seven members appointed by the GBOE, including three recommended by the governor, two recommended by the president of the Senate, and two recommended by the speaker of the Georgia House.

Commission members, who must have at least a bachelor’s degree, would serve two-year terms and select a chair and vice-chair of the commission. The GBOE could overturn a decision made by the commission with a two-thirds vote.

The Charter Schools Commission shall also “develop, promote and require high standards of accountability for a school that applies for and is granted a charter under this article” and “disseminate best practices for charter schools,” according to the bill.

Currently, Georgia operates 71 charter schools educating nearly 30,000 students. The state has nearly 2,000 traditional public schools. HB 881 would not take away local school districts’ power to approve charter schools.

More Choices, Parental Control

During the House Education Committee’s consideration of the bill, Jones said it would give parents more choices for their children.

“This bill supports local control because it gives parents greater control,” Jones explained.

During the House debate, which lasted for two-and-a-half hours, state Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said the commission is necessary because local school boards have a strong incentive to reject charter school applications. In 2007, there were 28 applications for charter schools, but only two were approved.

“If you operate the only fast-food restaurant in town, would you be the appropriate authority to approve the Burger King that wants to move in across the street?” Setzler asked.

Poll Shows Support

Opponents of the bill say it undermines local school boards’ authority. In a January 31 editorial, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it a “charter school hustle” and a “frontal assault on the constitutional powers of school boards and a shift of critical decision making to a political commission that will have no firsthand knowledge of the district’s needs.”

A poll released in January by the Georgia Charter Schools Association and My School My Choice Georgia–a statewide grassroots charter school advocacy group–shows strong support for more education choices. The poll was commissioned by the Center for Education Reform (CER), a charter school advocacy group based in Bethesda, Maryland.

CER spokesperson Jen Detwiler said the poll shows support for multiple authorizing agencies

“The support is across the board–from all groups, Republicans, Democrats, and independents, blacks, whites, and Hispanics–for school choice,” said Detwiler.

The poll was based on 659 interviews completed between December 13 and 15. According to the results, 52 percent of respondents were either not at all satisfied or not very satisfied with public schools; 72 percent said other groups, in addition to local school boards, should have the authority to approve charter schools.

More than 80 percent of black and Hispanic respondents supported allowing other authorizers for charter schools.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) writes from Pennsylvania.

For more information …

HB 881:

Georgia Education Survey, Insider Advantage and Majority Opinion Research, January 18, 2008: