Georgia Supreme Court Reviews State Charter Authorization Law

Published December 15, 2010

The independence of charter schools in Georgia may hinge on an upcoming decision by the state’s Supreme Court.

The lawsuit challenges House Bill 881, the Georgia Charter Schools Commission Act of 2009, which the state legislature established as another means for concerned parents and citizens to authorize and administer charter schools. Before HB 881, local school boards were the sole authorizer of new charter schools in the state.

HB 881 also changed the way charter schools are funded. If a local district denies a charter, the charter operator may appeal to the state commission for authorization and state funds. A lower court ruling held the commission charter schools are “special schools” under the state constitution and are therefore entitled to state funds.

More than 6,000 children could see their charter schools closed down if the state Supreme Court finds HB 881 unconstitutional. Justices were expected to deliver a ruling by Christmas  on the constitutionality the law. A decision was still pending at press time.

‘Issue of Interpretation’
Lawyers from districts in Atlanta, Griffin, Candler, Dekalb, and Henry counties argue the state funds are really local dollars because charters receiving funds that would otherwise flow to traditional public schools. The plaintiffs allege more than $9 million was redirected from local monies to commission schools last year.

“This is fundamentally an issue of interpretation,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Stefan Ritter told the justices during oral arguments in October. “The only basis for [local district] claims is that special must mean special needs.

“Charter schools are special in that they are unique,” Ritter said. “Charter schools offer unique education appropriate for their students.”
Seth Coleman, director of communications for the Georgia Charter School Association, says Georgia’s charter schools “have the autonomy to adapt quickly to the needs of their students and communities.” Parents of children at charter schools have a “fully vested interest in making an impact on the lives of the students and their achievement, no matter what the circumstances may be,” he added.

“If HB881 and the Georgia Charter Schools Commission are declared unconstitutional, this would have a devastating impact on the future of independent charter schools in our state,” said Coleman. An adverse decision, he added, could “do serious damage to the effort to bring quality public school choice options to parents and communities.”

Charters Outperforming Peers
The law was first challenged by Gwinnett County Public Schools, when the district filed suit on September 11, 2009 alleging the Charter Schools Commission does not have authority under the state constitution to manage and control local schools. District officials also argued the commission lacks constitutional authority to establish what is tantamount to a statewide independent school system.

Finally, district officials asserted the commission cannot direct local dollars to the operation of commission-approved charter schools.

Recent achievement measures add importance to the debate. In all but one standardized measure of success, the commission schools being sued—such as Ivy Preparatory Academy for Girls in Norcross and the Charter Conservatory for Liberal Arts & Technology in Statesboro—were significantly outperforming their traditional peers.

“The outstanding performance of Ivy Prep and CCAT makes it abundantly clear that the lawsuit by the seven school districts is not about what’s best for students,” said Tony Roberts, chief executive officer of the GCSA.

Funding Equity Sought
Several education establishment groups in Georgia lined up behind the local school district plaintiffs in the weeks leading up to oral arguments on October 12. Susan Andrews, president of the Georgia Schools Superintendents Association, urged local districts to sign on to an amicus brief in solidarity.

“The more districts that sign on, the more impact the brief might have with the Supreme Court,” Andrews wrote in her memo to superintendents.

But Coleman says he hopes legislators will embrace charters and other forms of choice in Georgia going forward.

“We hope that any laws they develop are done so from the standpoint of providing quality public school choice for parents and students,” he said. “That includes making sure that charter schools are properly funded at a level that is comparable to traditional public schools.”

Marc Oestreich ([email protected]) is a legislative specialist on education policy for the Heartland Institute