Update: House Bill 897 was passed by the Georgia House 120-to-51 on Wednesday, February 26. The bill requires Senate approval.
By Mike Klein
Georgia charter school issues have been quiet during the General Assembly but that could change soon. House legislation that passed the Education Committee last week would improve the chances for successful charter schools to expand their instruction. The same bill tries to give charter schools an easier path toward access to unused public school facilities.
This is a short legislative week with House and Senate floor sessions Tuesday and Wednesday. Then both chambers are in recess until next Monday which is “Crossover Day” when most bills die if they have not passed one of the two chambers. “Most” does not mean “all” and creativity has been known to keep unpassed legislation alive for another day.
Among the public charter school changes proposed in House Bill 897:
A) The State Board of Education would write rules under which an existing charter public school could petition for approval to “replicate, renew or expand” its model. Schools that can demonstrate their success could receive permission to open new campuses.
B) Petitioners who seek to create conversion or start-up charter schools would submit their petitions to local school systems and concurrently to the State Board of Education. This is a change whereas currently petitions start only with petitions to school systems.
C) State law already provides that unused public school space shall be available to charter schools. The bill defines “unused facility” as “less than 40 percent of the direct student instruction and critical administration space is being used.” Charter schools would also have “a first right of refusal” to purchase unused facilities “at or below fair market value.”
D) In an attempt to clarify funding issues, local and state charter schools would have an April 1 annual deadline to estimate next year enrollments. Local systems and the state would have a July 1 deadline to distribute funds based on those initial estimates. Other sections of HB 897 discuss specific funding levels based on types of instruction.
Also, the definition of proper expenditure of capital outlay funds would expand to include purchase of computer equipment and operating system software. In the more traditional definition those funds could be spent only on fixed assets such as existing or new buildings, site improvements and other equipment or physical furnishings. Technology upgrades such as computer and software purchases were not previously allowed with capital outlay funds.
The Foundation’s Criminal Justice Initiative pushed the problems to the forefront, proposed practical solutions, brought in leaders from other states to share examples, and created this nonpartisan opportunity. (At the signing of the 2012 Criminal Justice Reform bill.)